Solving Disputes with Specifics!

Have you ever had a conflict with a colleague that escalated, and seemed to be impossible to bring to resolution?

Consider this exchange:

Leslie: You’re acting so unprofessional, I just can’t believe it.

Devon: How can you say that? You’re being paranoid again.

Leslie: Me, paranoid? That’s the most irrational thing I’ve ever heard!  If you don’t apologize, I’m not continuing with this conversation.

Devon: You are so over-reacting!

What’s wrong with this exchange and why is it going nowhere to resolve the issues between these two colleagues? The answer is actually pretty simple: when one or both parties in a dispute use large, accusatory, general terms (“unprofessional,” “paranoid,” “irrational,” “over-reacting,”) the result is predictable.  It will end in an escalation of the situation as people become more defensive and emotional, and so less able to address whatever the real issues are.

What to do? If you find yourself in this kind of a dialogue (even if only one person is using such language), take the following steps:

  1. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Count to 10 (or 15 or 20).
  2. If you’re too emotional, you likely need to leave the situation till later – so do that. Explain, “I’m having a really hard time with our conversation right now. Can we get back to it in an hour?”
  3. If you stay in the conversation, name what’s happening, and ask that the conversation go a different way: “We’re both talking in generalities. Can we talk specifics?”
  4. Get a piece of paper and write down the specifics listed by you and the other person. For example, Leslie might say: “You don’t update me on projects, and then I look dumb when someone asks me a question.” (Write down: frequency of project updates.)
  5. Devon might say: “When you’re late to meetings, we have to back up and start over and it’s very frustrating.” (Write down: Leslie coming late to meetings.)
  6. Then, address each issue specifically, and agree on actions/behaviors to fix the problem. For example: Leslie commits to arriving at meetings on time or before they start, and agrees that if late, the meeting will not start over. Devon agrees to weekly Monday morning stand-up update meetings to give Leslie updates.  Always acknowledge the other person’s efforts to reach agreement, and point out where the agreements have been reached. For example, “I’m so glad we got to the bottom of our disagreement. I promise to get to meetings on time – but in case I mess up, I won’t expect you to start the meeting over.”                                                                         Remember: Stay away from generalities and accusations – and be specific with what you want and need.  Do you have other tips for getting resolution to workplace disagreements? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider

Harassment Training Made Short

In the old days, sexual harassment prevention training took a full day, and sometimes even two. I have no idea what took so long, but I remember feeling that somehow I was doing it wrong when I myself offered half day training. Over time, I reduced that to 2.5 hour training and it covered not only sexual but also other forms of workplace harassment. Upon request, I can do it in less: an hour, plus or minus.

Recently, I’ve been reading some articles about what is variously called “bite-sized learning,” “thin sliced training” or “single concept learning.” The idea is that employee training works best, i.e., understanding and retention are best, when lessons are delivered in short (10-15 minute) sessions that focus on a single topic, seek to create one behavior change, and achieve one result.  This is contrasted with bringing in an expert who does a full day of so-called “fire hose” training. Typically, bite-sized sessions are done via video training.

So how might this work if we’re doing anti-harassment training? Here are my ideas for a sequence of four 10-15 minute segments that seem to cover the bases. I may be violating the single subject rule somewhat, but the pieces still seem pretty bite-sized. Also, I think an additional session for managers and supervisors would be necessary; this would cover power imbalance, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and responding to complaints, among other things.

Session 1: The main lesson would be: Workplace harassment is a form of employment discrimination that is illegal under federal, state, and local laws. Illegal workplace harassment includes sexual harassment as well as other forms of harassment based on other “protected classes.” These include: x, y, and z. Everyone is a member of several protected classes. It is harassment if you direct comments or behaviors toward a person because of their protected class status to the point that it creates a hostile, offensive or intimidating work environment for them. It is not only illegal to harass someone, but Employer does not tolerate such harassment in this workplace — by anyone. This includes harassment by co-workers, management and even outside parties who come into the workplace.

Session 2:  Even good people can get in trouble for harassment because it does not matter that you were trying to be friendly, funny, or liked. It also does not matter if your behavior was not bad enough to be illegal. How do you avoid getting in trouble? Just remember two key ideas:

  1. Respect boundaries. You are at work and are expected to act in a professional manner. Imagine an invisible wall around your workplace, within which you’re a respectful, civil and courteous form of yourself. Co-workers, or even managers, may act like they are in a TV workplace, but they are not, nor are you — and equally important, even in a fun, casual workplace the hammer can still drop down on you if you cross the line at the wrong time to the wrong person.
  2. Assume it’s unwelcome.  Hugs, neck rubs, accounts of personal dating mishaps, off color or racial jokes. You may assume they’re welcomed because hey, you’re just a friendly touchy-feely person, you tell a great story, or you’re a member of a minority group too.  Wrong! Even if you think that your behaviors are welcomed, when in doubt, just don’t. Also: be aware that people may pretend that they welcome your comments or behaviors when they do not. Why? They want to avoid confronting or offending you, don’t want to appear uptight, or don’t want to be retaliated against. So they may not say anything to you, but if you cross the line, they will say something to the boss.

Session 3.  A picture is worth a thousand words. This session would include very short dramatizations of all the types of behaviors that can get people in trouble — put in a framework of the concepts set out in the previous two sessions.

Session 4. The final session should briefly address the employer’s EEO and harassment policy (especially, where to go with complaints). It would then cover, through dramatization, what employees can do if another employee is making them uncomfortable. This would range from speaking up (“I know you don’t mean anything by it, but I get uncomfortable when you do X”) to bringing in a co-worker to speak up on the target employee’s behalf, to reporting the problem to the employer.

Voila! The essentials are covered. Now all that’s needed are some theater and visuals.

Of course, this is just one approach. What would be in your four thin slices? ~Amy Stephson

Anybody out there hiring????

In some recent conversations with clients about hiring new staff, I noted a few things:

  • Yes, people are hiring!
  • Some of the old hiring practices that never worked very well continue to be used.  They still don’t work.
  • There are definitely some things you can do to increase the chance that you will hire well.  Many people don’t know that, or forget to do them.
  • It’s not getting any easier to hire well.

So, here are some things to think about.

The good news is that people are hiring: and some of them are hiring full time, permanent employees – though many are hiring part time and temporary employees.  In either case, it generally costs a lot of money to hire someone – and you pay a lot if you hire the wrong person, even if it’s only the wrong temporary employee.  Research indicates that it costs between 2.5 and 5 times the employee’s annual compensation if you hire the wrong person.  Ugg. That’s expensive.   So, there’s a point in hiring well.  Don’t settle just because you need a body.  You’ll be sorry.

Some old hiring practices that never worked still don’t.   Hint: if you’re still doing any of this, stop!

  • Hiring someone because you’d like to go to lunch with them: we’re not very good at picking people on gut feel, identifying people we’d like to socialize with (or to marry – witness the divorce rate). Lesson: gut feel tends not to work for marriage after months of courtship; it sure doesn’t work for hiring after a 30 minutes interview.
  • Using degrees or number of years of experience to screen people: we all know great workers without much formal education, and folks with degrees who have had the same first year of experience 15 times (they have not improved). Only use this criteria if required by law or licensing (e.g., you have to have an MD to be a doc, a teaching certificate to teach in k-12 schools…)  Even then, don’t rely on it.  All degreed people are not equally good (or bad) employees.
  • Hiring someone based on a friend’s recommendation can jeopardize your friendship if the hire goes wrong. And, if the needs of the position you’re filling are different than you’re friend’s assessment of her recommendation, you have no idea what you’re getting.
  • Screening people in (or out) based on pretty resumes and cover letters which could well have been written by someone else, and may not reflect any of the actual job requirements.
  • Asking general questions in interviews such as, “Why do you want this job?” “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” Answers to these have been shown, again and again, to have no correlation with job success. Don’t waste your time.  Good interviewing skills (the ability to answer these questions well) are simply not good predictors of job performance.

Here are some better practices to incorporate into your hiring.  Hint: doing these things will definitely increase your chances of finding a great person for your job!

  • Take as much time as you need to hire right, even if you need someone immediately – hiring wrong will cost you WAY more time and effort in the long run.
  • Identify the best employees in this job, and clone them by defining those things that distinguish them from employees that are not as good. List those items, be as specific and behavioral as possible, and go looking for them when you fill the job. You want to ‘clone’ your best employees based on these performance indicators.
  • Always, always, always check references. Yes, that can be hard to do these days. Do it anyway. And ask the references questions based on the job you’re filling. Ask for examples of work the candidate did that would demonstrate the performance indicators. Avoid general questions like, “Did Harry do a good job for you? Would you hire him again?” Most of the time you have NO IDEA about the quality of the reference’s judgment – and these are purely judgment questions. So, stick to facts.  Reference names can come from the employee – they can also come from anywhere else.  Use your ingenuity to get them! 

And, be sure to stay away from any illegal inquiries (race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, disability….you know those!).  If you have any question about what’s legal, check out the State of Washington Human Rights website (or the one for your state).

The bottom line: hire right to enhance your company or organization and avoid the pain (time, money, emotion, bad press…) of hiring wrong.  Had some good (or bad) hiring experiences?  Tell us about them!  ~Daphne Schneider

Assumptions!

 

Everyone has heard the saying that when we “assume,” we make an “ass out of u and me.”  Yet, in our everyday lives, we have to make assumptions or we can’t function.  I have to assume you will stop at the red light as I go through the green light.  I have to assume that I can use my credit card at the store without the number being stolen.  I have to assume that my Facebook page won’t be hacked, or stop using Facebook.

The same is true in our work lives.  I assume that if I’m your employee, you will pay me according to schedule, and will pay me what we agreed to when I took the job.  I assume that if I do good work, you will not fire me for no reason.  I assume that you will provide me with enough tools to do my job.

But we also make other, less reasonable assumptions in our work lives – and most of the time we don’t even know we’re making them.  An assumption is a belief that is unexamined and unsupported by facts.  There are many benign assumptions – but there are also some pretty destructive ones.

In many years of work as an employee, manager and consultant/investigator, I’ve identified my top three most dangerous common workplace assumptions:

• Assumption: Management knows what the problem is.  They just refuse to fix it. Often, what is obvious to staff is not at all obvious to management.  For instance, it may be common knowledge among her co-workers that Henrietta ducks out early every Friday.  Because it’s common knowledge among employees, they assume it’s known to management.  Likely, that’s not the case unless someone goes to management and tells them.  Don’t assume management knows what’s going on even if you think it’s obvious.  If you see a problem that’s not being addressed by management, it may be because they don’t know.  Bring it to their attention and ask that they address it!

• Assumption: Employees understand the reasons for management action. How often have you been in a situation where management did something, made some change, without explanation?  Perhaps you’ve even been that manager.  If you’re in management when that happens, you’re assuming that because you know the back-story, everyone does.  You’ve been working on the change for months – so it’s obvious to you.  You forget that it’s all new to your employees .  Don’t assume – explain not only what’s being done, but why.

• Assumption: They’re out to get us.  The “they” can be anyone you see as the “other.”  If you’re in management, it’s easy to assume the employees are out to get you.   If you’re an employee, it’s just as easy to assume management wants to do you in.  Unions and management sometimes assume that of one another.  How does that happen?  It’s the result of poor communication and lack of trust.  As human beings, we need explanations.  When we don’t get them, we tend to  make them up – sometimes with little or no factual basis to back them up.

For example, Harold just started here, but has already been promoted.  I assume he’s sleeping with the director.  Maybe he is – or maybe he has exactly the background that’s needed for an important vacancy that just happened.  Or, for example, the manager of my division was just replaced, giving us the fourth new manager in three years and making it really hard for the division to function well.  I assume top management wants to make our division look back so they can close it down.  Maybe – or maybe things are changing so quickly that people are getting moved and promoted in an attempt to help the company grow.

And don’t forget this truism: never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.  They’re likely not out to get you, they may just not be very good at what they do!

What to do?  First of all, become aware of the assumptions you’re making, and examine them closely.  If you can be aware of your own assumptions, and attentive to the destructive potential of the wrong assumptions you make, you can go a very long way toward better communication, less miscommunication, and more understanding and harmony in your workplace.  And, seek information and ask questions, lots of questions – respectfully, but with determination.  Help your workplace be a better place with fewer destructive assumptions!

Have you ever found that assumptions you made at work were wrong?  How did you find out?  What happened?  Let us hear from you!  ~Daphne Schneider

The Toxic Employee: Six Self-Help Tips

In my prior posts, here and here, I discussed how to identify a toxic employee and steps management can take to address the problems they create. But what if management can’t or won’t do anything? The only remedy then is self-help.

Self-help can take a number of forms. It takes judgment to determine which approach is best and whether to try several at once or to do them one at a time. If you have co-workers who are also affected, it is best to work together to have a unified plan of action.

1. Regardless of what other steps you take, the first thing you need to do is to distance yourself emotionally from the toxic employee. Blaming others is a benchmark of toxicity and often you will feel that somehow it all is your fault. It’s not. When you start feeling anxious, tense, angry, or upset, take a deep breath, and say to yourself: “It’s not about me, it’s about them. I will not let them get to me” – or whatever works for you. The goal is to act from a place of strategy, not emotion, and to not get sucked into their games and drama.

2. The next step is to distance yourself from the toxic person physically as much as possible. Do discuss work-related matters as necessary, but keep it to work. If they begin a negative conversation, don’t engage with them – just drift away.  Don’t engage in “negative bonding” even if the two of you are on the same page on a particular issue.  Don’t listen to their gossip, badmouthing and complaining – again, just drift away. One person taking these steps may not make a difference, but if several co-workers do this, the toxic employee loses their audience and some of their power.

3. Another technique is just the opposite: be particularly nice to the toxic employee and try to include them and get their opinions as much as possible. Sounds counterintuitive but it can work. The trick is to encourage positive behaviors, while discouraging negative ones. As soon as they start saying something negative, you redirect the conversation: to a problem solving rather than complaining mode or to something other than whatever they’re saying. All the while, you behave as pleasantly and neutrally as you can. Eventually, if enough people do the same thing, you may be able to reduce the negative behaviors to a more manageable level.

4. On the other hand, if the toxic employee really crosses the line to the point that it’s affecting your or others’ work, reputations or careers, it may not be enough to just drift away on the one hand or “love bomb” them on the other. In these cases, you need to speak up. As with any difficult conversation, you want to avoid accusations (at least at first) and instead use your “I” language, e.g., “I find your negative comments be upsetting and not helpful. Is this what you want?”  The person may strike back or deny the truth of what you are saying. Acknowledge what they’ve said and repeat your message.

5. A variation on this is to serve as the witness who calls out negative behaviors toward someone else. Step in and say something like, “I don’t think it’s helpful for you to attack co-worker X” or “… for you to badmouth our manager so much. I think he’s doing a very decent job.”

6. What if the toxic employee is a true bully or clearly has a psychological problem? These situations are tough, particularly if the employee is vindictive and somehow has the ear of management.  In these cases, you will want to document specific comments and incidents over a period of time and bring this documentation to management.  If a group can do this, all the better. Your goal is to make it as difficult as possible for management to continue to ignore or condone the behaviors of a toxic employee.

What if it’s clear management won’t do anything? Maybe the offender is their son or the best sales person in the company. In these cases, you may not want to risk your job. Instead, you may need to just start looking for another one.

Do you have other ideas for addressing toxic employees?  ~Amy Stephson

 

Toxic Employees, Part 2

Nearly four years ago (!) I wrote a post about toxic employees. It remains a topic of great interest so I’ve decided it’s time to revisit it.

The post’s definition of a toxic employee remains accurate, as do the strategies it outlines for dealing with such employees. Over the last four years, however, I’ve come to see even more clearly that toxic employees cannot be “fixed”;  they only can be contained or let go.

So what does “containment” look like? First, it requires a full commitment by management, at all relevant levels, to address the problem. This in turn may require some systemic changes because toxic employees tend to flourish in organizations with weak management and an “inmates run the jail” culture.

Second, containment involves the usual preliminary steps: clear communication of the problem behaviors and expectations. Even this will not be easy since toxic employees are often masters at deflecting and creating confusion about the simplest concepts. They also can be very insistent about their “rights” in the workplace.

Third and perhaps most importantly, containment requires the will to stay on the task.  This means consistent and persistent enforcement of expectations, up to and including termination.  This is not easy and is not for the faint of heart: toxic employees typically are also masters of the counterattack.  And this is why the entire “system” needs to come together, to support and reinforce the actions that the direct supervisor and/or manager are taking.

Overarching all of this, of course, is the need to document every conversation with the offending employee and every step taken on the progressive discipline path. Use of a performance improvement plan is one good mechanism within which to do this.

What about workplaces in which the toxic employee is covered by a union contract or other job protection?  The same steps apply — they just need to be done in the context of the criteria and procedures set out in the relevant labor contract, progressive discipline policy, and organizational code of conduct.

Can the toxic employee really be contained? Sometimes no, particularly if their behaviors stem from deep-seated needs or mental illness.  Often, however, the answer is yes. Research has shown, for example, that even sexual predators tend not to engage in sexually harassing behaviors on the job if the employer does not tolerate such behaviors. The same can be true for toxic employees — who, like most others, need to keep their jobs.

Finally, however, what if management is unwilling to take on the toxic employee? I will discuss that in my next post.

Do you have other ideas on how to contain toxic employees? ~Amy Stephson

It seemed like the right thing to do…

I recently finished Donna Tartt’s first novel, The  Secret History.  It’s a fascinating, rather dark story of students in a small, New England college who are part of an even smaller group studying classics with one professor.  Here’s the first sentence:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

The remainder of the book describes how this all happened: how a group of smart (hey, their private conversations are in classical Greek!), mostly rich, mostly well-travelled young people came to kill and think it was normal and necessary to do so.

As I was pondering this, I came across an article in the February 24, 2014 issue of Time Magazine.  It discusses the cheating practices that have come to light among Air Force personnel at some of our ICBM missile bases.  Staff there have to take monthly tests to ensure they stay on top of critical information, and dozens, if not hundreds of them have been found to be cheating on those tests.   As one former officer said, “I felt guilty about it, because my four years at the [Air Force] academy taught me that was wrong…But after a while, my friends and I joined with the herd in helping each other out.” Again, a group of presumably pretty bright, educated, committed and principled young people going terribly wrong.

This total reinterpretation of ethics and morals can also happen when people have nothing but the best motives.  For instance, an organization working to help homeless people with medical issues begins fudging on reports a bit to get more Medicaid money to them (they really need and deserve it!)  This can easily happen in the name of doing good, and even more easily happen if a group feels victimized, or is working with someone they feel is victimized.  Doesn’t the end justify the means?

So, what does all this have to do with our workplaces?  Unfortunately, everything.  Every workplace creates its own culture.  The more isolated the work group (office, unit, department, school, program…), the easier it is for staff to look only to each other to reinforce their ethical standard.  Once they start telling each other it’s ok to do something they may initially feel queasy about, they start to believe it’s ok.  Then, it’s only a matter of time when they no longer even question what they’re doing.

So what can you do to ensure that’s not happening in your workplace?  Here are some questions to ask:

  • Are there good checks and balances in place?
  • Are managers held accountable for knowing what is going on in their areas?
  • Do we listen to people who raise ethical questions about how something is being done, or do we shut them down as troublemakers?
  • Are we clear about our organization’s values, and do we regularly talk with employees about how those play out in our workplace?
  • Do we discuss real-life ethical issues in staff meetings and trainings, and work through how to deal with them?
  • Do we ensure transparency in all aspects of the work?

Going sideways from what we know is “right” is all too easy.  Take positive steps to ensure your workplace follows good ethical and professional practices.  What other questions might you ask, or what else might you do to address this complex issue?  Let us know!  ~Daphne Schneider