Category Archives: Communication

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

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

Workplace Favoritism: Perception vs. Reality

favoritism

Favoritism in the workplace is bad. There’s little debate about that. If a manager favors his or her friends, college buddies, fellow poker players or baseball fans, sorority sisters, or whatever, this can have a highly negative impact on the morale and productivity of those who are not favored. So if you’re a manager who is doing this, stop it!

Favoritism can also be illegal. If a manager favors those of a particular protected class (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), it can be discrimination against those who are disfavored. Similarly, if a manager retaliates against employees who have complained about, e.g., workplace safety or harassment, by favoring those who haven’t complained, that can be illegal retaliation. If a manager favors his or her romantic partner, that’s more complicated – it’s not good for morale or productivity, but may or may not be illegal depending on the circumstances.

Thus far we’ve talked about real favoritism. What’s more complex but not uncommon is employees who wrongly perceive favoritism when it’s really just management tending to turn to good workers rather than those who are not. An example: Employee “Gallant” is reliable, hard-working, and committed. Employee “Goofus” is none of these. [This is a test of your age, by the way. My older readers will get the references in these names; others may not.] Manager selects Gallant for special projects more than he or she selects Goofus – and selection for special projects is a coveted perk.

Many Goofuses will perceive this as unfair favoritism, as opposed to seeing that the manager is selecting the employee who will get the work done. This can create problems, particularly when Goofus decides that the alleged favoritism is not only unfair but is illegal discrimination or retaliation – often not that hard a case to make even if it’s not true.

So what can an employer do to try to prevent such situations? Often the problem is that the manager does not realize how his or her selection process appears to others. It just seems obvious: I’ll select the best person for the job. But one can’t necessarily expect Goofus to have the self-insight to understand what’s going on. It is essential, therefore, for managers to be sensitive to perceived favoritism and to explain to Goofus (and the workgroup in general) how the selection process works and how employees can qualify.

Done in a supportive, not punitive, manner (and without holding up Gallant as an example of what to strive for) this can serve as an incentive for Goofus and the workgroup as a whole to improve their performance.

Will this always work? Of course not: some employees are unable or unwilling to hold themselves accountable and will always blame others. But if management’s efforts to create a level playing field are documented, at least it will have some defense against potential lawsuits alleging discrimination or harassment.

Any other thoughts out there? ~Amy Stephson

Is there life after an investigation? Part 2

Last month I discussed how to get back to normal (or at least establish a new normal that works) after a workplace investigation. I suggested that the first things to do are

  • Conclude the investigation as quickly as possible,
  • Split up the complainant and respondent, if at all possible, and
  • Acknowledge any fault on the part of the employer.

There are a number of other things you can do that will increase the chances of a healthy tomorrow.

Set a goal going forward, and be as specific as you can. For example, assist the workgroup that went through the investigation in focusing on what, specifically, they need to accomplish together in the next quarter. Get their minds off of what happened, and on to reaching the next goal. You can’t just tell them to forget what happened. They won’t. But you can, and should, help them refocus.

Show them you care. Demonstrate caring – don’t just talk about it. Listen. Empathize. Respect people’s feelings. Do things that demonstrate that the staff members are important to you. And show that you care both about the people who are still employed with you, and those who left (whether they chose to leave or were dismissed). Never make negative comments publicly.

Address the fears. After an investigation, people will be afraid: afraid it could happen to them. Afraid they wouldn’t be believed if it did. Afraid they could be wrongly accused. Afraid nothing will change. Afraid things will change. Address the fears. To the extent possible, give information about what happened, and how the issues that were brought out in the investigation are being addressed. Acknowledge the fears, and make it OK to talk about them. This is hard – acknowledge that it’s hard, and that working together, with a common goal and management that cares, you can make it through this crisis and come out better in the end.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. You’ll likely have to have the same conversation several times. Don’t get impatient. Each person works through a workplace crisis (and yes, an investigation can be a crisis) at his or her own pace. Remember that in the absence of information from you, people will make up their own information and see it as truth. They’ll develop reasons and explanations – which may or may not have anything to do with fact. So, provide information, lots of it – communicate.  And keep communicating. Not only will this address the fear and anxiety, over time it will build trust.

Check out Jay Shepherd’s Result Triangle in which he addresses these three steps for helping people move in a particular direction.

Finally, keep yourself from going crazy. Be sure you have trusted colleagues with whom you can work this through. You need someone in whom to confide, someone to talk to. If you find yourself going crazy, take a deep breath. Take a time-out. Don’t react – you risk long-term negative consequences to your workplace if you let your emotions take over. If you find that starting to happen, take a break.

And remember: this too shall pass.

Do you have other tips or insights for recovering from investigations? Please share them! ~ Daphne Schneider

Power in the Workplace

I recently read a fascinating blog post by Seattle area consultant and coach Neil Baker, MD, entitled “Hard-wired for troubles with power.” According to the post, research shows that all human beings are “hard-wired” to be “acutely sensitive” to those with power. In the employment setting, this means people with positional power, i.e., those with the ability to hire, fire, manage resources, and assess performance.

I have long discussed the impact of power in my harassment training and management coaching. It is frequently a very eye-opening concept. As described by Baker, however, the consequences for management that flow from employees’ acute sensitivity to power goes far deeper than we may realize.  He writes:

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. If you do anything that tells them it is not OK to be real around you, your authority will amplify the impact of your action. The slightest voice inflection, the most innocent remark, can land hard on those you have authority over, causing them to make up stories that support increased caution and distort further interaction.”

“Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning”–those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy. On top of this, research suggests that, regardless of underlying personality or values, just being in a position of power will cause a person to listen less, talk more, and have difficulty getting into another person’s shoes to understand and empathize.

On the other side of things, because of this magnifying effect of power, those with positional power can have a large, positive impact on the psychological safety of a work environment.” [footnotes omitted]

Baker goes on to give a wide range of suggestions on how those with positional power can reduce its negative effects, e.g., maintain two way feedback and be careful with language. They are well worth reading.

Reading this post, I had some additional thoughts. This power dynamic creates a difficult situation: most managers and supervisors don’t really have as much power as their subordinates think and actually are just fellow human beings, yet the subordinates are basically hard-wired to get upset and angry with them. To some extent, this just comes with the territory and management must acknowledge and accept this reality.

However, it is important for employers to not allow employees to demonize or dehumanize their managers and supervisors because of some real or perceived wrongdoing on the latter’s part. Anyone who does employment investigations or litigation has seen this demonization. Employers who allow it are undermining their management team and demoralizing the workplace.

So what should employers do when faced with this situation? Employees who name call or badmouth managers and supervisors should be told to express their concerns in appropriate and respectful ways. Those who make unreasonable demands  (e.g., put that abuser on leave immediately or that harasser needs to be fired now), should be told that this is not how the employer treats any of its employees as a matter of basic fairness and due process.

Might the demonizer then go after the person who did not give in? Possibly. But in my experience, almost everyone hears and understands concepts of respect and fairness … so long as the message itself is communicated in a fair and respectful manner….

What are your thoughts about positional power in the workplace? ~Amy Stephson

Aggravation!!!!!

Most of us are sometimes faced with people at work who drive us nuts.  That can even happen to me with clients and others.  I’ve also recently been in conversations and interviews with people who have complained bitterly about their bosses or co-workers.  Many of these complaints have revolved around variations on one issue: what the subject of the complaint is doing that is wrong or stupid or inefficient or counterproductive (as defined by the person being driven nuts, of course!).  So, I’ve been thinking about how best to deal with these aggravating folks.

I’ve come up with a short list of questions (and answers) to use as a guide with the intended result of reducing my (and perhaps your) aggravation (and stress!) with some of these challenges in our lives.

First, a given: You can change yourself (your behaviors, attitudes, beliefs…), but you can only (at most) influence others.  So do NOT approach these aggravating people with the intent of changing them or you are likely to simply end up more aggravated yourself.

 Now, answer the following questions on your way to reducing your aggravation:

Question 1:  Is the aggravating behavior violating a law or company policy?

  • If yes (but you’d better be SURE), sometimes all you’ll need to do is point that out (maybe even anonymously.) For example, say the boss repeatedly expects you and others to work over 40 hours a week in a non-exempt position without paying overtime. Send her a copy of the section of the state law that clearly states she has to pay you overtime for this. I’m going to bet she’ll get the hint (though she might be mad about it).
  • If no, proceed to Question 2.

 

Question 2:  Is the aggravating behavior mostly stupid,  rude,  infantile, embarrassing…?

  • If yes, and you have a good relationship with the person, consider providing effective feedback in a way they’ll hear (see some of our earlier blog posts on effective communication). They might well have no idea how they come across, and appreciate the help.
  • If yes, and you don’t have a good relationship with the person, decide to separate yourself from what’s going on. You may not be able to do that in fact (you have to keep your job, I have to continue to interview a rude witness…). In this situation, you need to understand that the other person’s behavior is about them – not about you. Are they micromanaging? It’s because they can’t manage appropriately. Are they editing and re-editing until they have re-written your work and brought it back to where it was before the first edit? It’s because they don’t understand how to edit appropriately. In either case, it’s about them, not about you. Remember one of the great scenes in Muppet film Labyrinth? Once our heroine understands she does not have to buy into the goblin king’s definition of reality, she says, “You have no power over me!” And what happens? The labyrinth in which she believed she was trapped, disappears. Take back your power, and don’t allow the aggravator to define how you see the world.
  • If no, go to question 3.

 

Question 3: Is the aggravating behavior counterproductive to getting the work done, is it ineffective and inefficient?

  • If yes, and you have a good relationship with the person, consider offering feedback in a way they’ll her. But remember: no one likes to be told what they already know. So, if I know that the way I’m doing a project is inefficient, but it’s the way my boss is making me do it, hearing criticism from you will not help. So, be careful!
  • If yes, and you don’t have a good relationship with the person, remember this: unsolicited advice is rarely welcomed. If your boss wanted a critique of the company’s billing system, we’re sure he would have asked you. He didn’t. If your boss wanted to hear you discuss better hiring processes, she would have asked. She didn’t. Don’t needlessly aggravate people (especially people with power over you) by telling them how to do their jobs – when they didn’t ask you for advice. They’re unlikely to appreciate it. Just keep doing your work, let go of your ego in the situation, and stop making their inefficiency or ineffectiveness your problem. LET IT GO. Take a deep breath. Go back to your work and do it as well as you can.  And, if you can’t stand the aggravation, look for another job.

 

Remember: in this world, as long as you work with others, you will likely find some of those others aggravating in the way’s I’ve described here.  Sometimes you can effectively deal with those folks – but often you just need to stop giving them power over your emotions (i.e., stop letting them aggravate you) and LET IT GO!  Comments?  We’d like to hear from you! ~ Daphne Schneider

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

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

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

Is Filing a Complaint the Best Answer?

I’ve conducted about 300 workplace investigations in my many years of doing this work. As might be expected, I’ve seen some patterns emerge. One of the most troubling ones I’ve found is when formal complaints of harassment or discrimination are made with virtually no facts to back up a case. Unfortunately, this can have the result of trivializing real and serious issues. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about:

Example 1, Touchy-Feely Harley: several female employees make a sexual harassment complaint against Harley because he’s more ‘touchy-feely’ than they like. He occasionally puts his arm around their shoulders, sometimes stands pretty close when they’re talking, and has a habit of giving people a quick hug when he first sees them in the morning. The women get fed up and, rather than talking to him and telling him they don’t like to be touched and want their personal space respected, they file a sexual harassment complaint against him. This forces Human Resources to conduct (or have an outsider conduct) an investigation. In the end, the investigation shows that what happened did not come anywhere close to rising to the level of behavior that is “severe” or “pervasive” – the standard in the EEOC Guidelines. Harley is mortified – he says he had no idea he was offending anyone, and would have stopped if anyone had said anything to him – but no one did. All someone had to say was, “Harley, please don’t touch me or stand so close. It makes me uncomfortable.” He would have backed off.

Example 2, Sickly Matt: Matt has some legitimate health issues, and is sometimes absent for days because of them. He has made several disability discrimination complaints, each one being submitted after his supervisor asked him to change the way he worked or criticized his work in some way. When he makes a complaint, the supervisor rescinds the instruction or changes the critique while Human Resources investigates. And, each time he has made such a complaint, the investigation has found no discrimination. The cycle keeps repeating itself, because everyone (Matt, his supervisor, Human Resources) keep behaving the same way. A manager needs to talk with Matt and his supervisor. In this conversation they need to clarify Matt’s job, ensure he understands what he is expected to do and that his supervisor has the authority (and responsibility) to assign and direct his work, and help him correct things that are being done wrong. In that conversation Matt should share his point of view, and the supervisor should demonstrate understanding while still being clear about expectations. Though management certainly can’t interfere with Matt’s right to file a complaint, he should be encouraged to first try to work issues out with his supervisor – and be praised and rewarded when he does so. It may be necessary to have this conversation a number of times.

In the end, what’s the real problem here? Shouldn’t employees make harassment or discrimination complaints if they feel they’re being harassed or discriminated against?

The problem here is that more and more, rather than people talking with one another if one has an issue with another’s behavior, or taking another constructive problem-solving approach, they choose the complaint route – which of course immediately escalates any situation. Don’t get me wrong – some complaints of harassment or discrimination are absolutely legitimate. And, once a complaint of harassment or discrimination is made to a supervisor or manager, they have to treat it as a complaint and investigate it accordingly. But by too easily raising the issue to a compliant, often the real complaints are trivialized (like crying wolf) and a lot of damage (that could have been avoided) has been done to workplace relationships.

How can this be changed?
Obviously, you can’t tell employees they can’t file complaints. However, a fair percentage of those situations that I’ve investigated (way over 70%) could likely have been avoided if there had been strong and skilled management, employees with good, assertive communication skills and a workplace culture that rewards those who make serious attempts to work through difficult communication and interpersonal issues. You CAN create a workplace culture where people are taught how to discuss concerns with one another, and encouraged to do so. It takes thoughtful consideration of expectations, and it takes teaching managers, supervisors and employees assertive communication and problem-solving skills. It’s hard – but it’s worth it.

Have you encountered situations where complaints are filed instead of employees engaging in good problem-solving communication to work though the issue? Or have you been in workplaces where problem-solving of this kind was encouraged and rewarded? Either way, we’d like to hear what happened! ~Daphne Schneider