The Case of the Reluctant Manager

Henrietta was an ace software engineer: developer, problem solver, speaker at conferences. She was known throughout the industry for her brilliance. She was so brilliant, in fact, that the Company promoted her to manager because they thought so highly of her and were afraid of losing her!

At first, Henrietta was thrilled to be recognized and rewarded for great work in this big and visible way. She loved getting to take on the toughest, most interesting challenges. And now, as manager, she was able to assign work – so she got to assign the most interesting and challenging projects to herself. She also loved making sure that everyone on her staff did things the right way (her way). She was excited that she finally had the authority to make it so. And that’s when the trouble started.

Henrietta repeatedly told her staff members what to do and how to do it. Some of these people had been doing the work for a very long time and were also considered to be experts. She figured she got to tell them what to do since she was the boss. But for some reason, her staff members seemed to resent her direction and advice. She corrected them when they did things wrong (not her way) – and they really took offense. That wasn’t what she had expected. She had assumed they’s appreciate or at least accept her management. But, she figured that since they resisted learning from her, she’d just let them fail on their own. She withdrew from supervising or managing them at all, and just did what she considered her REAL work: tackling those tough challenges that she really loved. After all, wasn’t the whole point of getting promoted that you were able to do more of the things you loved and tackle the toughest tasks?

Well – no. That’s actually not the whole (or even the most important) point of being the manager. Unfortunately, too many times people get promoted just because they have outstanding technical skills and the employer doesn’t want to risk losing them. And too often, they don’t actually want to do the #1 job of a manager (or even supervisor): to manage and supervise people. When someone is promoted into a managerial position, they are paid more – because they are expected to take on that really tough job of people management.

So, how should an employer think about filling that all-important manager position? Consider these points – in this order:

  1. Clearly define the job requirements – placing people-management skills at the top.
  2. Use selection criteria that emphasize the ability to supervise and manage people. Technical skills should come second (even if it’s a strong second.)
  3. Once the person is hired, clearly state job expectations: people management should come first.
  4. Then, ensure that the manager’s performance is evaluated first on his/her ability to manage and supervise people.

Technical expertise is great – but that’s not the primary responsibility of managers. If you have a Henrietta on your staff, this employee with great technical skills, and you want to reward her or keep her from going elsewhere, what can you do other than promote her to manager? You can

  • Create a Senior position, or an Expert position, or an in-house Consultant position where that person’s special skills can be used to their maximum advantage without putting them in a position where they are required to supervise and manage people – something they don’t want to do and that is not their strength. (Yes, every once in a while there are technical experts who love and excel at people supervision and management as well. If you find one of those, do what you need to do to keep them!)
  • Give the technical expert lead technical work – where she can be the lead on those complex projects without being saddled with people supervision or management.

Why is it so important to ensure that those whose strength is technical work (and not people management) not be placed in people management positions where they will fail? Here are just a few reasons:

  • When Henrietta becomes a manager, she becomes a toxic employee: she makes herself miserable, and likely makes her staff members miserable.
  • As a result, her work is very likely to suffer (even her technical work), and certainly her employees’ work will suffer: they’ll be thinking and talking about how awful she is – rather than spending all that energy on the work.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, and isn’t good at it, she’ll likely spend more time (emotional time and real time, and work and outside of work) fretting about that, and so be prevented from doing the job at which she excels.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, staff members who need a manager’s support, guidance, and supervision – or correction – won’t get it, and the employer will suffer.

Finally, if you do find that you have promoted a Henrietta who can’t supervise or manage people – all is not lost!

  • First, have an honest conversation as soon as you realize the problem exists. Admit your part of the fault in her hiring/promotion (if you were involved.)
  • Encourage her to learn a new set of skills – people supervision and management. Offer classes, coaching, and support.
  • Establish a clear set of expectations and a reasonable timeline to meet them.
  • Document. Document. Document.
  • If it doesn’t work out, figure out how Henrietta will leave her position with dignity,  perhaps to return to a purely technical position where she can save face, go back to loving her work, and to making positive contributions to the Company.

Check out this great recent blog by Vu Le, “Nonprofit with Balls”, on the subject of dealing with employees who aren’t making it. Even if you don’t work in a not-for-profit organization, it’s a great blog!

We’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve ever worked with a Reluctant Manager. Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

Just Say Hello – and Goodbye

Six years ago I wrote a post about the importance of employees saying hello to each other, particularly of supervisors and managers saying hello to subordinates. And you know what? In both my coaching and investigation practices, the issue still comes up.

Recently, for example, it arose when I was coaching two co-workers, trying to help them resolve their many conflicts. One complained that the other didn’t talk to her for days and didn’t greet her in the morning. The other said: “Well, I come in a back door and don’t pass her desk.” Oy.

The issue also comes up with goodbyes – though the offense is somewhat different: “He just leaves and doesn’t tell anyone.” She never tells us where she is going.” “She sneaks out so we don’t know when she leaves.”

So what is this about? As I stated in my previous post, “All human beings need to feel acknowledged. When a supervisor, manager, or co-worker greets an employee, the message being communicated is that the employee has value and importance. When there is no greeting, the opposite message is communicated.”  I think the same principle applies to good-byes, though to a lesser extent. There, practical problems are also involved: you think someone is around but they’re not, or you think they’re cheating on their time in some way (even if they’re an exempt employee).

I also think it’s an issue of power – particularly positional power. In another post, I discussed research indicating that, “If you have positional power, “the sense-making of people who work for you will be determined less by the facts and more by their internal story. … Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy.” In the hello and goodbye context, the power differential increases the “offense” felt by subordinates. They feel that by ignoring them and not exhibiting basic courtesies, the boss is holding him or herself above the others.

The main way to solve this problem, of course, is to make it clear to employees, particularly leaders, how important these seemingly small touches are. But what about the manager who is not a “Hi, how are you?” kind of person in general – particularly in the morning? I’ve coached managers like this and the challenge is for them to figure out how to acknowledge others in a way that feels authentic and not phony. Maybe they can’t give a “big” hello, but anyone can say, “Mornin’” as they walk by their subordinates.

And if the subordinates are not normally in the manager’s path (“I come in the back door”)? Change the path. Or at least send an email, “Good Morning All!”

Any other thoughts on this topic? ~Amy Stephson

Interviewing job applicants: What works, What doesn’t

Over the past few weeks I’ve had several conversations with supervisors about hiring new staff members. Those conversations, along with a book I’ve been listening to  (Work Rules, by Google’s Laszlo Bock, ) have made me think, again, about how much misinformation there is on the topic of job interviews.

We see all sorts of “personality tests” promising to get us the perfect team member, and  clever trick questions to ask to reveal someone’s creativity or true nature (“if you were an animal, what animal would you be?”). We see all sorts of questions about most recently read books and favorite films. All these are great fun if you are having coffee or lunch, getting to know someone. Unfortunately, none of them do what job interview questions are supposed to do: predict who will do the best job for you. Even Google found that out when they tried all these…and none of them worked to find them the best employees they were seeking!

As you might imagine, there has been a great deal of research on this topic. One thing is clear: unstructured interviews, or interviews with the above kinds of questions, are considerably worse at predicting who the best employee will be than even mere chance (just toss a coin – it’s easier!) We’re just not very good at judging people (witness the divorce rate, where the dating process should provide us with a lot more time and information). We need a  structured process to make any kind of interview actually serve as a predictive tool.


So, what to do? Here are a few key things to remember when you’re conducting a hiring process, and interview:

  1. Ensure that all of your hiring criteria are related to the job you’re filling.. Seems obvious, right? But it’s not. For example, you might believe that all good employees need a college degree. But is it really required for the Administrative Assistant you’re hiring? You might be missing out on a great candidate by creating requirements that don’t reflect the job.
  2. Don’t’ judge applications on neatness, correct spelling, etc. UNLESS these are legitimate job requirements. Hiring a grounds keeper? Skip evaluating the neatness of the application and find out how much she knows about plants.
  3. Don’t judge interviewees on their ability to be interviewed UNLESS that’s part of the job. Unless you’re hiring a press secretary, head of an organization or company, NFL player or political candidate, most jobs don’t require the employee to respond to panels of questioners. The candidate will be nervous, and that’s ok. Judge the quality of their response – not how nervous they are.
  4. Ask the greatest number of questions about the person’s background as it applies specifically to the job. These will give you the very best information about the person’s ability to do the job you’re filling. Start questions with phrases like
  • Tell us about a time when…
  • What’s the hardest problem you’ve solved with your skills as a________
  • Explain how you have….
  1. Ask hypothetical questions that pertain directly to the job. Ask questions that start with phrases that reflect real job situations this person might face, like
  • What would you do if…
  • How would you handle a situation where…
  1. Write out the criteria by which you will judge responses to the interview questions. Yes, it’s hard to do. However, you must be able to articulate what you are looking for. Otherwise, the interviewee could either charm you or offend you in ways that have nothing to do with their ability to do the job you are filling.
  2. Include more than one interviewer. Together with the above tips, this will serve to give you several perspectives on the candidate.

And, of course,

  1. Refrain from asking any illegal questions. Don’t ask anything about gender, ethnicity, religion, age, child care, disabilities or other questions that pertain the protect group status of the applicant.

So, just remember: the interview process is NOT about finding someone you’d like as a friend. It’s about finding someone who will excel at the job you need to fill.

Have you had good (or bad) experiences with job interviews – either as an applicant or as an interviewer? Share them with us! ~Daphne Schneider


Email in the Workplace: Do’s and Don’t’s

Recently, I did a coaching project and an investigation, each of which arose primarily due to the misuse of email. And the resolution of each partially involved developing some guidelines about email communication.

I am sympathetic to our use of email over other forms of communication given how easy and convenient it is. Plus, unlike a phone call, you can control when you read and when you send.

For many reasons, however, using email for anything beyond basic communication is risky. First, most email writers are busy and when drafting an email, don’t take the time to be precise and clear. Many of us don’t really even know how to be precise and clear: writing is difficult! The result: miscommunication.

Second, email writing tends to be flat: it does not convey the range of meaning that body language or one’s voice conveys. Again, the result: miscommunication.

Third, email is simply not the appropriate medium to discuss complex or sensitive issues because, again, that only invites miscommunication. And worse: it can lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and even complaints. Because many of us are uncomfortable with complexity and emotion, however, we are relieved to not have to talk about such things in person or by phone – and therefore use email.

Finally, many of us don’t read most emails very carefully. So even if it’s clearly written, fairly straightforward, and not on an sensitive or emotional topic, some readers will miss the point.

And we’re not even talking about emails with inappropriate subject matter such as sexual jokes or racist comments.

So, what can be done, given email’s ubiquity and usefulness? I’ve come up with some rules. Ideally, employers would communicate these in advance to all employees who use email in their jobs. Reminders don’t hurt either.

  • If an email involves anything substantive, take the time to ensure that it is clear and complete. Do not just dash something off. Take a minute or two to think — and then proofread.
  • If an email string is developing, stop and decide if it makes more sense to talk in person about the issue. Go to the other person’s desk, pick up the phone, or send a reply that says, “Let’s talk about this” with a suggested time.
  • If a topic is complex or sensitive, consider communicating in a different way. A meeting, a phone call, a memo — one of these will often work better.
  • Keep your sentences and paragraphs short and your font reasonably sized. (Fie on Gmail for its small, boring font!) Do what you can to ensure that your readers will actually read and understand your message.
  • If you’re a manager, do not criticize subordinates in email. Talk to them. And if a writing is necessary, document the problem in an appropriate way.
  • Do not copy people into emails unless it is necessary. First, it clogs up people’s email boxes. Second, you know why you included a particular recipient, but that person  may not know why you have copied them in or may not be paying attention. Finally, if the message is the least bit negative, the direct recipient may feel that you’re defaming or undermining them with others.
  • The previous rule applies doubly strong to “Reply All.” Think before hitting that button.
  • Do not rely on long email strings to communicate a point. Restate the point or if appropriate, at least indicate where the relevant information can be found, e.g., “Please check so-and-so’s email of [date and time].”
  • If you think the other person is in error or has forgotten something, do not say, “That’s incorrect” or “You have forgotten X” or the like. Instead, say something along the lines of “My recollection is that we decided to do X” and then explain. Better yet, talk about the issue in person.
  • Keep emails will polite and respectful. No accusations or snarky or rude comments. Emails last forever.

Do you have any other email rules? ~Amy Stephson

Headphones at Work: Part 2

More than three years ago, I wrote a post about headphones at work. The post set out a number of problems with the use of headphones and also listed a number of situations in which wearing headphones at work may be appropriate if permission is granted. At the end, I asked if maybe it was easier to just ban headphones altogether. I still get occasional responses to this question: a resounding no.

Last November, the Seattle Times had an article subtitled “The science of picking the right music at work” (searchable at different sites). The article stated, “An extensive body of research shows what headphone wearers have known for years: When wielded the right way, music and noise can increase your output and make the workday go by faster.” The article outlined several instances where studies show that music can help employees:

  • For repetitive work such as data entry, it aids productivity.
  • To decompress after a tense meeting, listening to rhythmically simple music with 70-90 beats per minute can help.
  • To stay alert without caffeine, you want a good syncopated beat of 120-140 beats per minute.
  • For moderate-skill workers doing computer code, productivity increases if they can listen to the music of their choice.

What interested me the most, as a workplace coach, was research showing that positive, affirming lyrics are also important. The article noted, for example, that this can particularly help before a presentation or job interview.

So does this mean that headphones are always a good idea at work? Of course not. It does suggest, however, that employers will not want to have a knee-jerk “No” response if employees want to wear them. Rather, employers will want to create evidence-based and fair headphone rules. These will consider what the job requires, how to address safety or distraction concerns, and whether compromises are necessary, e.g., allowing an employee to wear them for only part of the day or during certain tasks, or requiring the employee to use an ear bud in one ear only.

What if an employee wants to listen to books on tape or NPR ?  ~Amy Stephson

Should You Investigate? Part 2

Last time we talked about Sally, who had come to management saying she was being “harassed” and was working in a “hostile work environment.” Management took her to HR. But then what?

Too often, what happens next is one of two things. If Sally is a difficult employee, has been known to complain in the past, or if the person she is complaining about is well liked, the inclination is to dismiss Sally’s complaint and do nothing. The other thing that often happens at this point is that a formal investigation is immediately started – either internally or by bringing in an external investigator. Either of these might be the correct response…BUT NOT YET. Without knowing more about the issue, it is not possible to determine what steps should be taken. Just because an employee uses words like “harassment” or “discrimination” or “hostile work environment,” it does not necessarily mean you will need to conduct a full-blown investigation.

The first thing to do (after taking the steps described last time to protect the employee and assure the integrity of any future investigation), is to perform a high-level review of the facts as Sally presents them. Here are some things you should consider in deciding about next steps:

  • Determine whether Sally’s complaint is general (e.g., Henry is mean and unfair in the way he treats his staff) or specific (e.g., yesterday he gave Sally a frontal hug, stroking her back and making her very uncomfortable.)
  • If what Sally is telling you is new to you, listen carefully in a neutral, non-judgmental manner, and take notes without making any editorial comments.
  • If what Sally is telling you is not new, determine whether prior complaints about the issue she is raising have been looked into. If they were, what happened? If they were not, why not? Use this information as part of your guide for action.
  • Not all complaints require an investigation. If Sally’s complaint is more general in nature, it may require an organizational assessment or an assessment of the skills of the manager, rather than an investigation.
  • If Sally’s claim leads you to believe that your policies (or laws) may have been violated, are these violations of policies/laws against discrimination, harassment, ethics, employee conduct, etc.? If not – Sally may still be unhappy, and her unhappiness will still need to be addressed, but not from a policy violation perspective and not by an investigation.

It is very important to understand the basics of the problem or issue before addressing it. In many of the investigations I have conducted over the years, I’ve not seen that anything illegal has happened. In fact, frequently no company policies or laws have even been violated, and sometimes the employer could have determined that quickly without even calling me. In many of these cases what I have seen is poor communication, employees who are unhappy for a variety of reasons, and supervisors and managers who may have good technical skills but don’t have people skills.

So remember:

  • Don’t ignore employee complaints.
  • Employees don’t have to come to you with their complaints – they can go directly to their attorney or an outside rights agency. If they do that, it will cost you a lot more (time, money, good will and reputation). Create a workplace where employees want to resolve their issues internally by coming to you rather than going outside.
  • If you can’t be neutral in hearing an employee complaint (without assuming there either is or is not a violation of policies or laws), have someone else deal with the situation.
  • Respond appropriately. If it’s likely an allegation of a violation, investigate. If it’s likely a complaint of poor supervision, management, communication, etc., you may need to assess the situation further, but you likely won’t need to investigate.

So, before either dismissing a complaint that is brought to you, or immediately beginning a full-blown investigation, take the time to really assess what you know and determine the best way to approach the situation. You’ll be much more satisfied with the results!

Have you responded to an employee complaint with an assessment rather than an investigation? What happened? We’d love to hear! ~Daphne Schneider


Should You Investigate? Part 1

You just got an employee complaint…Oh, what to do, what to do???

I’ve been pondering this question after years of conducting workplace investigations for clients. After about 350 investigations, the results are interesting: in at least 75% of the situations, nothing illegal has happened. So, should there have been an investigation? It depends.

I have found that some clients immediately choose to investigate when an employee uses what I think of as the big trigger words: harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment. Almost everyone in this day and age has heard these words tossed around. They’re in the media all the time. But few of those who use them understand them to have legal definitions based on statutes and case law.

So here’s what sometimes happens: Sally tells someone in management she’s being harassed and is working in a hostile work environment. That person (rightly) report that allegation to either human resources (if it exists in that workplace) or upper management/the CEO. And then I get a call. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

So what should a manager do when someone comes report that they are being harassed, or are working in a hostile work environment? Shouldn’t you just drop everything and call in the investigator? NOT YET. (Yes, I know I may lose some work by saying this.)

What to do instead? Take the following steps, in this order, and then decide whether you need an investigator.

  1. Assure Sally she will be protected from any retaliation in connection with her complaint (and yes, by saying these words to a supervisor or manager, she has already made a complaint). Ask her to tell you if she feels she is being retaliated against in connection with this complaint – and remind her not to retaliate against anyone else. Any retaliation against her (or by her) in this situation is illegal under both Washington state and federal laws.
  1. Have Sally meet with someone who has been trained to deal with such situations. If no such person exists in your company or organization, do bring in an investigator to interview her appropriately. Then get several people trained in these basic interviewing skills. 
  1. If Sally’s complaint is about one or two specific incidents, ask her to write it up, with as much detail as possible. Then have her sign, date and give the written statement to you (you’d be surprised how many such statements are neither signed nor dated.) If you have an actual complaint form for such situations, of course do ask her to complete that as well.
  1. Ask Sally not to discuss her complaint with her colleagues. This is a very important request, for the sake of your ability to deal with the situation professionally. However, you should not make this a directive. The National Labor Relations Board has indicated that forbidding employees to discuss workplace concerns may be illegal.

Once you have information from Sally, if that information indicates that she has examples of behavior that could be harassing or create a hostile work environment under the law, you must investigate or hire an investigator to do so. Failing to do that could cause an additional complaint against the employer.

And, document, document, document. Note when Sally first came to you, what she said, and what you and others did. Keep that documentation indefinitely.

In my next post, I’ll be providing some additional information about questions to ask (or not ask) in that initial interview, and what else to do (or not do!)

Have you had employees come to you with allegations of discrimination, harassment or hostile work environment? What did you do that worked, or didn’t? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider