Category Archives: Employee Retention

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

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

Five Ways to Lose Good Employees

After parachuting in to hundreds of workplaces, I’ve come to see a number of ways that employers upset, alienate, and eventually lose good employees. They are, in no particular order:

1.  Fail to recognize good work when it happens. I’m not talking an Employee of the Month award, just a timely and sincere expression of appreciation for what the employee did. Consider using the “SAIL” method of recognition, which involves hitting on the following four points:

  • Situation: The problem or opportunity
  • Action: What was done, in specific terms
  • Impact: The result of the action
  • Link to organizational goals or values: how the action contributed to the organization.

And if you’re emailing the recognition, it never hurts to copy someone higher up the chain.

2. Let bad work or behavior go unpunished. When management takes no steps to address poor performance or negative behaviors, it affects the morale of other employees, particularly those who are doing their work faithfully and well. The good performers not only may have to pick up the slack for the poor ones, but they see management’s inaction as indicating that the organization doesn’t value good work and adult behavior. Even if management is taking corrective action of which other employees are unaware, the corrective action may not be very effective if other employees see no changes.

3. Change priorities frequently. Good employees tend to take organizational priorities seriously and work hard to achieve them. When the organization keeps changing those priorities, however, it’s like the boy who cried wolf: employees start to care less about particular projects because history shows that tomorrow, that project will be shelved and another put in its place. For good employees, this is not only frustrating, but it makes their work less rewarding and satisfying.

4. Abuse employees’ trust. Trust is about doing what you say you are going to do and being who you say you are. It’s about showing your staff that you are reliable, responsible and accountable, and that they can rely on you for consistency. It means never discussing one employee with another employee unless you are highlighting his or her accomplishments. Violate these rules at your peril: good employees may just leave.

5. Take credit but not blame. Aside from actual abuse, one of the worst things management can do is to take credit for the achievements of good performers and blame them when things go wrong. When things go well, management should give staff credit. When things don’t go well, it should assume responsibility and not scapegoat.

And a P.S.: Imposition of high expectations without a commitment to providing the necessary resources is another way that management can ensure that its best employees will soon start looking elsewhere.

Is there something else you would put in your top five? Interestingly, a recent Forbes magazine article had a completely different list!  ~Amy Stephson

More on Teaching Mr. Spock

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the problem of supervisors who channel Mr. Spock from Star Trek.  Mr. Spock, if you recall, has tremendous technical expertise – but lacks people skills.  He was likely appointed to his position because of that technical expertise and loves solving all the tough problems.  By the same token, he really doesn’t like the people aspects of the job.  The reality is that you get higher pay for being a supervisor because  it’s hard to do the people stuff, and the expectation is that you’ll do it as a major part of your job. 

So, here are several more ideas to help Mr. Spock be a better people person, and thus a better supervisor.

  • Do some warm and fuzzy stuff: ask employees how they’re doing and actively listen to the answer, remember who told you about their child or parent or hobby (it may be necessary to keep a few notes after employee interactions as reminders), express sincere concern for what’s happening in their lives without being inappropriate or intrusive (yes, boundaries are important).  No need to fake friendliness and suddenly become touchy-feely.  Just let that inner caring person come out a bit.
  • Compliment employees in a meaningful way: acknowledge good work (that’s important to most employees) by being specific about the skills the employee demonstrates and how those skills made a real difference in a particular situation.  For example, don’t just say, “Good job, Joe!”  Say, “Joe, I saw you with that upset customer.  You quieted your voice, politely asked her to explain the problem, paraphrased what she said to be sure you understood and thanked her for bringing it to your attention.  That allowed you to fix the issue and have her leave happy so she’ll likely return.  That was really great customer service!”  If saying it is too hard, write a note or an e-mail, and be sure  to remember these things when it comes time for performance appraisals or bonuses.
  • Ask employees to help: Involve employees in real ways to improve matters, but don’t ask them to be involved when you already know what you’re going to do.  I’ve seen lots of supervisors get into trouble when they ask for employee input without really meaning it. So, ask for input, and be clear about what you’re going to do with it.  Say, “We’re considering buying a new floor waxer.  Tell me what bells and whistles you want and we’ll do our best (within budget) to get one that includes those.”  Don’t say, “What brand do you like?” and leave it at that, because that communicates you’ll get the brand the employees tell you they want – unless that’s actually what you intend to do.

 Again, these are all skills in interacting successfully with subordinates.  They probably seem awkward at first, but practice them and you’ll become a much better supervisor! 

Are there other points you’d like to pass on to Mr. Spock?  Let us know!  ~ Daphne Schneider



Don’t Channel Mr. Spock!

There have been many times that I have been called into a workplace because employees are up in arms against their supervisor (we’ll call her Bella,) while management can’t see the problem since she is delivering great work.  Again and again in these situations I find the following:

 Employees tell me Bella is unfair, mean, angry, cold, doesn’t care about them, never compliments them, doesn’t listen, micromanages, and even lies.  They say good employees have left because they can’t stand to work for her.

Meanwhile, Bella’s boss, Harvey, and her peers tell me she’s made a huge impact on the quality of work being produced, has straightened out any number of problems, improved efficiency, always responds quickly and effectively to whatever they ask her to do, is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  

When I talk with Bella, she gives me perfectly logical explanations for decisions she has made that her employees labeled as unfair, uncaring and mean.  She explains why she pays attention to the details of the work and how that has resulted in improved work products and increased efficiency.  She describes how she has complimented employees, recalling she told one employee of whom she thought very highly, “I’ve assigned you to X, the toughest job we have, because you’re so good at what you do and this is important to the program.” (The employee’s view was that she was  being punished and her protests about not wanting to do this task fell on deaf ears).  Bella also tells me she provides information to her employees as appropriate, and that sometimes that information changes or evolves.

Are employees, manager, peers and Bella herself talking about the same person?  Is she simply behaving differently depending on the audience?  Or?

The answer is yes to all of these questions.  But more than that, Bella is channeling Mr. Spock – remember him from Star Trek?  He was a highly effective, efficient and task-competent, fact-oriented creature who had zero emotional intelligence.  That’s Bella.

It takes much more than task competence to effectively manage people.  Management sometimes forgets that when they promote a highly competent technician to a supervisory position.  Although in today’s world many supervisors and managers also perform tasks, their primary responsibility is to supervise and manage the people who report to them. 

What to do?  Here are the first steps Bella needs to take to build her relationship with her employees: 

  • Acknowledge and apologize: Before changing her behavior (even to improve it along the lines below), Bella needs to acknowledge and apologize for not being as good as she might have been at interacting with her staff in the past, and tell them she is committing to doing better.  She needs to ask their help in improving.  I know this is tough, but it’s very important in making a fresh start.  If Bella just starts changing some of her behaviors, her staff will likely notice and will most likely not trust that her efforts are well-intentioned (since they don’t trust her now.)  This could make things worse, rather than better.  This is a small scale version of the approach taken by the South African Truth and Reconcilliation Commission in moving past aparteid.  Then,
  • Actively listen: paraphrase, be genuinely open to input.
  • Frequently demonstrate empathy: acknowledge employee concerns, hearing both the content and the feeling behind the content.  Actully name the feeling, for example: “It sounds like you’re frustrated,” or “I’m guessing this move is scarry for you.”  Let the employee respond as to whether the feeling named is correct or not – being right matters much less than acknowleding that there is feeling involved  and attempting to understand it.  Remember: demonstrating empathy is not the same as agreeing.

These are the first skills to demonstrate when moving from Mr. Spock to someone with emotional intelligence.  Like all skills, they can be learned.  But if you’re Mr. Spock (or Bella) it won’t be easy and may feel like a waste of time.  It’s not.  Successfully supervising employees (not just the tasks they do, but them) is one of the most critical duties a supervisor or manager has.  In future blog posts I’ll talk more about some of these and other related skills.

Are there other critical employee supervision skills that Mr. Spock (or Bella) need to learn?  Have you had to learn some of these – or had supervisors who should have learned them?  Tell us your story – we’d love to hear from you!  ~ Daphne Schneider

Hiring Right Starts Here!

I was recently speaking with a friend about hiring and orienting staff for her small business.  It’s very expensive to hire someone if you look at the time it takes, the lost revenue while you have a vacancy, the likelihood that you or someone else has to fill in and do the work while you’re looking for the new person.  Then, when you hire someone they’re never up to speed immediately – even if they’re fully qualified.  You still have to orient them to your workplace and wait for them to learn your routines.  Depending on the job, that could take a few days or a few years. 

There are a number of things you can do to minimize the difficulty of hiring and orientation and maximize the chance that the person will work out in the long run.  In my next few blog entries I’ll talk about some of these.  Today I’m going to start with the first step: really, carefully defining the job behaviors (demonstrated knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics) it takes to excel in the position. 

For a smaller workplace, the best way I know of to do that is to think about the ideal person in that job, and then to write down the job behaviors that person would demonstrate above all others.  If the best gardener you ever met just became the crew chief, consider the job behaviors that made that person the best.  Better yet – talk with them and ask what made them the best.  If you’ve never known the ideal gardener and you need to hire one, imagine how that person behaves on the job and write that down.  

Before you start looking at applications or resumes you’ll first want to define any absolute requirements.  These may not help you find the ideal person, but they will screen out those who simply cannot do the job.  For example, the gardener may need to drive your company truck – and therefore needs to have a regular or commercial driver’s license and meet your insurance company’s standards.  

Once you’ve defined the absolutes, proceed to list out the job behaviors that that incredible gardener has.  A list of some of these behaviors might include:

  • Demonstrates plant knowledge by picking appropriate plants for a wide variety of different settings.
  • Demonstrates gardening skill by correctly planting and caring for a wide variety of plants.
  • Actively listens to customers. 
  • Explains attributes of different plants so that the customer understands.
  • Arrives at the job early with all the necessary tools.

 Note that all of these are observable job behaviors.  You don’t need an exhaustive list of everything a gardener does, just a list of those things that that really special person will have above all others.  I’ve not listed things like, “Good attitude,” or “Does quality work” because these are not behaviors.  If these are critical, figure out what the behavior looks like and list that.  For instance, “Good  attitude” might mean “Completes a large quantity of work in a day” or “Establishes positive relationships with difficult co-workers.”  Turn those fuzzy statements into behaviors to help you really define what you’re looking for. 

Most employers begin the hiring process by posting a job somewhere and then reviewing applications or resumes.  This isn’t ideal, but it is often the reality (for a better approach check out the work of JoBehaviors).  Some of the behaviors you listed above may be hard to detect in a standard application, resume or cover letter.  You might have to screen the applications on some very general background (like gardening and landscaping experience or education for our gardener), and then hone into what you really want to know during the interview and in reference checks.  In future blog posts I’ll address those. 

Have you experienced some challenges hiring the right person for the job?  Please share them, and tell us what you did about them.  ~ Daphne Schneider

Ah, Data!


For some of us that’s as boring a word as ever there was. It’s also a word full of critical information for making good decisions (and combating the dreaded assumptions we tend to make.) Yea, right…that’s obvious, you say! But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found myself in situations where the answer was in the data – but the data was just about the last thing anyone was considering.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Example 1: Company A was experiencing a lot of turnover in one division. Thinking a contributing factor to dissatisaction was the environment, management upgraded everyone’s chairs. The problem continued. So, management then decided the problem was a lack of employee commitment to the work and the company. They brought in a motivational program. The turnover problem continued. Finally (after considerable time and money), they really dug into and examined the turnover data more carefully. They discovered that management was bringing in people based mainly on recommendations from current employees – with the result that the people they hired were not necessarily qualified, did not understand the work, and were certainly not committed to the company. Had they looked at the data concerning employment practices first, rather than making assumptions about the cause of the turnover, the problem could have been successfully addressed by improving the employee selection practices much earlier.

Example 2: When a new manager was hired in another workplace, she noticed that the staff seemed to make an awful lot of mistakes. She concluded there was a lack of skill, standards and monitoring.  So, she provided training, set exacting performance standards, and carefully reviewed the work. Still, mistakes did not appreciably decrease. Finally, she brought someone in to look at what was going on. After an analysis, it was brought to her attention that the same employees who were expected to pay close attention to detail were constantly being interrupted by the phone and by people at the counter, as well as being expected to immediately answer e-mails from the public. Once work was re-distributed to minimize interruptions for any one person at any one time, mistakes decreased dramatically.

In both of these examples, managers who knew and understood the work assumed they knew what was wrong without examining the data. They assumed that what they “knew,” rather than any data, was all they needed to solve the problem – and they were absolutely wrong. So, before you assume you know the answer, look at the data. Ask the questions. Talk to the people who are actually doing the work and those who are hiring them. If needed, get an outsider to look at the problem from a neutral perspective. Then, address the real issues based on your discoveries, on the data – not on your assumptions.

How have you successfully used data to address issues in your workplace? Tell us! ~ Daphne Schneider

Help Every Employee Soar!

Well, it’s happened.  I’m actually going to use a sports example to make a point (this from the woman who, some years ago, made it a goal to learn one new sports analogy a month so she could understand her colleagues!)  Anyway, I now actually have a very minimal understanding of and some interest in college football.  So, when I read this coach’s comment about UW quarterback Jake Locker at the Senior Bowl, I thought wow! – that absolutely fits into a workplace context!  Here’s the quotation from coach Ken Zampese:

He [Locker] doesn’t have any preconceived notions that it’s got to be like this or that. No, no. He’s ready to soak it all up, and that’s going to serve him well as he goes, because the only way you get better is to jump in with both feet. You can’t go in and fight something. You’ve got to go full in. 

 As a supervisor or manager you also have to go “full in” without “preconceived notions” about how best to work with each individual employee.  You need to adjust to each person, and to the individual situation, and respond with what actually works – not what you think ought to work.

I’ve written in the past about people having different styles, different temperaments.  They’re also at different places with regard to their ability and motivation to do their jobs.  One very useful tool for thinking about that has been around for many years: Situational Leadership.  In short, it’s a way to quickly sort out how best to lead and supervise someone.  Here’s the summary, applied to fictional employees:

Henrietta who lacks both skills and motivation.  Though she’s been around a long time, she has resisted learning new technologies and seems burned out.  She’s no longer skills, and she’s not motivated.  You need to tell her what you want her to do and how to do it.  Cncentrate on the tasks that need to be done, not on your relationship with her.  If she continues to be unwilling to learn and become more capable,  she needs a different job.

Carlos has also been with you a long time.  He, however, has continually improved his skills, but also seems burned out.  Treating him the way you treat Henrietta (by telling him what to do) will only get you resentment and actually demotivate him.  He needs coaching and encouragement (even selling the job to him) to help him find what motivates him, what excites him about the job he once loved and knows so well. 

Contrary to Carlos, Amma is a very excited, highly motivated employee you recently hired.  So, she doesn’t yet have all the skills, but she sure has the enthusiasm!  You need to teach her the work.  Be sure she learns well, because then she can move to the next level which is where you’ll find Kim.   

Kim is highly competent in his work, and loves it.  Delegate to him: give him the job and leave him alone other than providing  him the resources he needs.  Then, stand back and watch him soar!

So remember coach Zampese in his comments about Jake Locker, jump in with both feet and soak up the information employees give you every day about how you can best supervise them.  Don’t fight what you see and hear from them because it doesn’t fit into your preconceived mold – use the information as data to determine how best to work with each person on your staff.  Remember: one size does not fit all!

Have you successfully adapted your supervisory style to the skills and motivations of your employees?  Have you faced a challenge when you tried to supervise everyone the same way?  Tell us about your experience so we can all learn from it!  ~ Daphne Schneider

Learning from “Stay Interviews”

I recently read in the Linked In “HR Think Tank” listserv of a concept tentatively called a “stay interview.”  The term is the opposite of an “exit interview” and the goal is retention of employees.  Another name suggested is a “pulse interview.”   Somewhere out there an even better name likely exists.

Typically, climate surveys and the like focus on the problems.  In a stay interview, the focus is on the positive.  The organization learns what it is doing right – information that can be as useful as learning what it’s doing wrong.  This is because understanding and replicating the good things often results in the bad things correcting themselves or getting less focus.  The organizational development process appreciative inquiry builds on this notion. 

How does it work? In one model, someone from HR or  in management (better in many cases) meets 1:1 with the employee informally.  After telling the employee how valued he or she is, a few questions are all that is needed to get the basic information: Why do you stay at x? What about this organization and your job do you like most? What does this organization do that you like? What could it do more of? 

Whoever is conducting the interview should take a few notes, but the goal is to keep it informal and open.  The interviews can be done in small groups as well. 

Who gets a “stay interview”? Different organizations target different sets of employees.  One approach is to do them with “critical” talent, i.e., the star performers and those with high potential.  The idea is that this will help the organization retain its best people.  Other employers target new employees (e.g. less than two years) or those at milestones such as 1, 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, etc. years.  They can be done with any group of employees, e.g., all managers and supervisors.  

It’s also been suggested that these questions  could be asked routinely for all employees as part of the performance review process.  With many organizations short on staff and time, it may even be helpful to ask these questions in a short written survey of all employees or targeted groups.  As I’m sitting here writing, it occurs to me that these questions could even be asked at a staff meeting by supervisors who then communicate the results to upper management. 

Food for thought. Have any of you tried this?     ~Amy Stephson