Category Archives: Supervising Employees

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

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Having Employee Performance Problems? Maybe It’s the System!

I regularly check out the website www.upworthy.com.  They have a wide variety of interesting videos and news articles that they seem to cull from all over.  Recently I watched this video, about a former female Marine who was sexually harassed and raped while in the Corps, and then, when she complained, she was retaliated against.  Check it out:

http://http://www.upworthy.com/a-marine-was-assaulted-her-commander-said-she-deserved-it-for-wearing-running-shorts-really?c=ufb1

In this clip, Ariana Klay and her husband, Ben, clearly describe the systems problem that made possible the harassment, rape and retaliation she suffered.  Yes, individuals (including her fellow Marines and their commanding officer) broke laws and otherwise behaved in appalling ways.   Yet these two former Marines maintain that it was probably an unreasonable expectation to think that her commanding officer would impartially investigate or judge the accusations and complaints she made against her colleagues.  According to their comments,

  • The military system is set up to train commanders to lead troops in war (right – it’s the military).  It is not set up so that commanders can impartially mete out justice to their own troops.
  • The system rewards unit cohesiveness at all costs (which is likely destroyed when one member accuses another of harassment – or rape).
  • It expects commanders to act in a judicial capacity when they have little or no training to do so.
  • It rewards high unit performance at the cost of all else.
  • Finally, the military pays lip service to fighting harassment (creating anti-harassment policies, providing anti-harassment training, displaying anti-harassment posters, etc.) while maintaining a system that protects the harasser (or rapist) and vilifies victims.

So, what does all this have to do with our non-military workplaces?  Think about this the next time you see managers, supervisors (or, for that matter, employees) who fail to live up to your expectations.  Ask yourself:

Does our management and systems structure promote the best work from everyone, or do we make it impossible for people to do their best work?  For example,

  • Do we tell leads and supervisors (and even managers) they’re in charge without giving them the authority to do what needs to be done?
  • Do we tell employees to work collaboratively while rewarding individual performance?
  • As we reduce our workforces, do we ask already full-time employees to take on more and more without dropping or changing anything they were previously doing?

Do we ask people to do things for which they have no training?  For example,

  • Do we promote the best technical people, then ask lead and supervisory employees to do their new jobs without giving them any training in supervisory skills?
  • In reducing our workforce, have we asked people to take on tasks they don’t know how to do without training them in those tasks?

Are we clear about our expectations?  For example,

  • Do we say one thing (like putting up anti-harassment posters) while doing another (like joking with our employees or colleagues in ways that are funny at someone else’s expense?)
  • Is there a direct link between what we say we want and what we reward with pay or promotion?

So, before blaming individuals for failing to do their jobs properly, look at the systems you have in place.  W. Edwards Deming (www.deming.org) said it way back in the 1990s, and it’s just as true today:

Most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to proportions something like this:

* 94% belong to the system (the responsibility of management)
* 6% are attributable to special causes [aka individual employee performance issues].

Do you have some insights into systems issues?  We’d love to hear from you!  ~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

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

The Praise Sandwich

I recently read a blog post noting that a recent study showed that the so-called “praise sandwich” performance management technique does not work.  (The praise sandwich is when you want to serve up some criticism but precede it and follow it with praise.)  Why? Because many employees won’t hear the criticism, but will hear only the praise.

That really struck me because if I were served a praise sandwich, I would hear only the criticism!

Be that as it may, I decided to look into the praise sandwich and found that it is quite a controversial issue.  At least in the employee management blogosphere.  Who knew?

First, a little more on how it works.  You want to tell an employee that her written work is sloppy: typos, poor grammar, disorganization.  So you go in and say something along the lines of, “ I really appreciate your willingness to dive in and get done what needs to be done in our department.  One area that could use some improvement, however, is your reports, which need some work. [more details].  Otherwise, I again want to tell you that you are a really valuable member of our team.”

What’s wrong – or right – with this approach? Here are some pros and cons.

Cons (in addition to the one noted above):

(1)   It’s dishonest and the employee sees right through it.

(2)   It’s disrespectful and manipulative because you are controlling the employee instead of being transparent;

(3)   The employee is more uncomfortable rather than less because they always know the boom is sure to follow;

(4)   It devalues the positive feedback because it’s not genuine and is just being used to soften the negative.

(5)   If the praise is more meaty than the criticism (which an uncomfortable manager might do), the criticism is lost in the shuffle.

And now the Pros:

(1)   If the praise is relevant and genuine, it allows the employee to save face and retain their self-esteem.

(2)   It immediately addresses the employee’s unspoken anxiety: “Am I about to be fired?”

(3)   There usually is something positive to say that’s relevant and it’s right to acknowledge it.

(4)   Focusing on the positive is a better way to help employees change their behaviors.

(5)   An open-faced sandwich is best: Praise – Criticism – Helpful Advice.

Ultimately, of course, the best approach will depend on the circumstances, the employee, and past events.  Whichever way you go, it requires honesty, helpfulness, and a positive attitude on the part of the manager dishing the feedback.

What are your thoughts on the “praise sandwich”?  ~Amy Stephson

Preparing for Conflicts is Key!

I recently read a great piece of advice from one of my colleagues, Carol Bowser (http://www.managingconflict.com/.)   She’s a conflict expert, and suggested that we all prepare for conflict situations before they happen.  That’s a good idea since (1) we are highly likely to find ourselves in such a situation sometime and (2) when you’re in the midst of a conflict it’s really hard to come up with the right thing to say if you’re not prepared.  In other words, behaving effectively in a conflict situation is actually a skill that you can learn.

So, what does being prepared mean?  Taking Carol’s suggestions and expanding on them, here are some questions to ask when you find yourself in that conflict:

  1. What’s the issue (and do we both agree that’s the issue)?
  2. Why do I hink it’s an issue?  Why does the other person think it is?
  3. What are some possible solutions?
  4. What am I willing/able to do to make it better?
  5. What can we do together to make it better?

To apply these to a workplace example, say you’re the Marketing Manager in a company.  You and Susan, the Finance Specialist are having an argument about a budget line item for graphic design in the Marketing budget.  You want to spend most of it to purchase new software you need.  Susan says it can only be used for hiring a graphic designer for a project.

  1.  What’s the issue? You  and Susan agree that the issue is allowable use of the budgeted graphic design funds.
  2. Why do you think it’s an issue?  You’re thinking long-term about the department’s needs which would best be met by buying this software now.  Why do you think Susan think it’s an issue?  She seems to be tied to the rules, and these dollars are in a section of the budget which may only be used for consulting services.
  3. What are some possible solutions?  You and Susan brainstorm, and come up with the following:
    1. Expand the use of funds in this line of the budget.
    2. Transfer the funds to another part of the budget, likely leaving little available for consulting services.
  4.  What are you willing to do to make it better?  In talking with Susan it becomes apparent to you that expanding the allowable use of funds in this line item would be a longer term project, and you need the money for the software now.  You might want to propose this change in graphic design funds use as budget development begins for next year, but for now you decide that you’re willing to forgo consulting services monies and move the funds to another line in the budget from which you can purchase the software you need.
  5. What are you willing to do together with Susan? You decide to meet with the Finance Manager together to get the OK to move these funds.

As you can see, there’s a real system here – and it works.  Till they really become part of how you approach conflict, I’d recommend putting the steps on a note card or even a sticky note and always having them handy.  I used to have a sticky note with these steps on the bookshelf above my desk.  That way I’d have them handy whenever something came up.  I’d also recommend practicing (with your child, with your friend, with anyone where you find yourself in a disagreement – even talking to yourself as you drive…).  If you practice on “small” conflicts ir even invented conflicts, when real or bigger ones come up you’ll be prepared.

If you want to know more about this way of approaching conflict, check out the Harvard Negotiations Project    (http://www.pon.harvard.edu/category/research_projects/harvard-negotiation-project/ )  and the work they’ve done over many years, starting with the famous Getting to Yes.

Has this or another systems for working through conflicts been successful for you?  We’d love to know!  ~ Daphne Schneider

Workplace Gossip Policies Revisited

Three years ago, I wrote a post asking whether it was a good idea for employers to institute workplace anti-gossip policies.  As everyone knows, gossip in the workplace is ubiquitous and inevitable — and can be devastating to an organization and individuals if it goes beyond a certain point. I left the issue open, but such policies do raise a number of questions.

One, for example, is how to define and regulate “gossip.” One person’s gossip, after all, may be another person’s discussion of problematic personal interactions or work conditions (see below). Another question is how to monitor gossip: no wants to encourage a tattle tale, “Mommy, he was mean to me!” culture.  In addition, many believe that excessive gossip reflects other problems in the workplace such as inadequate communication or perceived inequities — and management’s job is to tackle those problems, not the negative effects.

Recently, moreover, things have occurred in the legal landscape that make this issue more complicated. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that a range of employee communications, even by those who work in non-union workplaces, are legally protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.  That section gives employees the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection” when such activity addresses terms and conditions of employment.

Using this law, the NLRB has ruled that employees cannot be disciplined for engaging in protected activity, including for communications about work issues on social media. It also has invalidated employee handbook provisions that suggest that an employee could be disciplined for engaging in such activity. In one case, for example, the NLRB criticized an employer’s handbook statement that employees needed to be “courteous, polite and friendly” and could not be “disrespectful” or use language that injured the image or reputation of the company.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss the legal parameters of this emerging area of the law.  Suffice it to say that if several employees are talking about how cheap the boss is because they haven’t gotten raises in two years, that is likely going to be protected concerted activity regarding wages and they cannot be disciplined for this conversation.  On the other hand, if several employees are discussing what a “tramp” a co-worker is, that is likely not protected as it does not pertain to working conditions. 

So where does this leave employers who are thinking of implementing anti-gossip policies?  Proceed with caution. And when in doubt, consult a lawyer. It remains important, however, to address gossip that may rise to the level of harassment or discrimination, and more generally to address morale issues that may result from excessive gossip or badmouthing.

What are your thoughts?  ~Amy Stephson