Category Archives: Supervising Employees

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

Acting 101 for Managers

A little-recognized but oft-experienced reality is that to manage employees effectively, managers need to have fairly well developed acting skills.  Stated another way, managers need to always be aware of how they present themselves and the impact of their behaviors on their subordinates. 

So what does this mean in practical terms?  Think of these common scenarios:

  • An employee has repeatedly performed or behaved badly despite repeated discussions of the problem.  You’re frustrated and angry, but you don’t want to show it.  Your role: calm, firm and clear setter of expectations and consequences.
  • You’re having a really bad day.  It’s OK to hide somewhere if you can, but you don’t want to be cranky and angry or icy and formal with your employees.  Can’t you be real once in a while?  Unfortunately, no: employees get confused by a boss they see as unpredictable and up and down.  They also have long memories for slip-ups.  Your role: the consistent grown up. 
  • You really click with some of your employees and not with others.  Your tendency would be to hang out with and favor in subtle ways the ones who are pleasant, easy to get along with, and have a good sense of humor, while steering a little clear of the others.  Not good.  Your role: the parent who cares about all of his or her children equally. 

This is not easy.  But it may help to recognize that it’s your job and not the place to self-actualize and express your emotional self.  Also, if you remember that you’re playing a role – manager –that in itself can give you some distance from the emotional travails of managing people. 

One caution, however, about playing this role: you also need maintain a level of authenticity and interact with others on a human level. These are not necessarily inconsistent demands. You can play a role but still retain your fundamental personality and come from a genuine place of caring.  Those qualities will shine through even as you always present yourself as the proper manager.

What are your thoughts about manager as actor?  ~Amy Stephson

The Five Whys … or the Five Whats?

 A famous information gathering method developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used at Toyota Motors is The Five Whys.  It is a question asking technique that seeks to determine the root cause of a problem by repeatedly asking the question “Why” as each answer is given to the previous question. 

In the HR setting, this technique can be very helpful.  For example: an employee is frequently tardy.  The Q&A might go like this:

Q1:  Why are you tardy 2-3 times per week? A1:  My car always acts up.

Q2: Why does your car act up? A2:  Because it’s very old and I don’t keep up with regular maintenance.

Q3:  Why don’t you keep up with regular maintenance?  A3:  I’m not sure where to take the car. I live out in the country.

Q4:  Why don’t you do some research to find a good mechanic?  A4:  I’m not sure I really could afford a good mechanic.

Q5:  Why can’t you afford a mechanic?  A5:  My wife is very ill and we are spending all our discretionary funds on her medical care.

At this point, you have come to the heart of the problem (perhaps) and can decide where to go from there.  The number five is not a magic number: three questions may be sufficient and six or seven may be needed.  In addition, there may be multiple “root causes” for a particular problem so you may need to branch out and pursue different Q & A strings.  The principle is that by asking why repeatedly, you are more likely to get to the real cause of a problem. 

As an investigator and coach, asking questions is my business.  So the Five Whys is a very appealing technique.  However, in my experience, one often has to be more diplomatic and subtle when asking questions  and therefore use of a Why-Why-Why approach can backfire.  In fact, the word “Why” in and of itself can be a problem because it tends to make people defensive. 

 So where does this leave the Five Whys?  It’s still a great technique so long as you realize that the questions may need to be worded differently.  So in the above example, instead of repeatedly saying Why? you can use phrases such as “You are tardy 2-3 times a week. What is going on?”  “Do you know what your neighbors do about their cars?”  And so on. A judiciously used “why” now and again may be fine, but you don’t want it to be a battering ram.

In short, one can drill down in a nonthreatening way and still get to the root causes of a problem.  Asking “why” in an automotive factory may be just fine, but in the HR settings, use of other types of questions, partucularly those beginning with the word “what” may be more appropriate and productive. 

 What do you think?  ~Amy Stephson

Headphones at Work?

I recently read a post in Dave Clemens’ HR Cafe on the issue of whether employers should let employees listen to music or other material on headphones while at work. He noted that surveys  show that employees feel more productive and satisfied while listening to music, books, etc. and that with headphones on, they’re less distracted. He then went on to discuss when it might be inappropriate to let employees do this (e.g., if they’re in customer service) and the dangers inherent in wearing headphones such as failure to hear a fire alarm or co-worker questions.

This got me thinking.  My main thought being: I don’t think employees should be on headphones during work. 

I must confess first that I don’t like the modern habit of listening to music 24/7: on the bus, when walking, when shopping, etc.  I believe in interacting with the world, not being perpetually distracted and separate from it.

That being said, some activities are very boring — exercise at the gym, for example–and even I can’t condemn doing something else while exercising.

So with that as a starting point, maybe wearing headphones at work can be appropriately allowed if: (1) the work is fairly solitary and repetitive; (2) listening to music, news or whatever will not affect accuracy or other elements of job performance; and (3) the employee can still readily hear what’s going on around him or her.  I would also add that the employee needs permission to wear headphones and that he or she should not be allowed to wear them for excessively long periods of time and certainly not all day.

There are (at least) two problems, however, with my criteria: they potentially pigeonhole certain jobs and can create resentment among others who are not allowed to wear headphones.  The answer to the first problem, of course, is not to label the headphone-appropriate jobs as “boring.” Other, more positive descriptions such as those used above are better.  As for the second problem, if the criteria are clearly stated and consistently applied, theoretically there will be no grounds for complaint. Or maybe an employer can institute “Headphone Friday.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s just easier to ban headphones altogether. Your thoughts?  ~Amy Stephson

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Perhaps my favorite confidence-building saying is, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” What does this mean? It does not mean, “Pretend to have knowledge you don’t have,” or “Lie to your supervisor about what you’ve accomplished.” It’s more of an attitude: “I lack expertise in this area but I am going to working on developing it and in the meantime behave in a confident manner.”

 More deeply, it means you feel some confidence in yourself even though you are far from an expert in whatever it is, knowing that if you apply yourself and stick with it, you will improve and eventually “make it.” 

I myself have used the saying many times, particularly when I first went into private practice on my own. And later when I did training on conducting investigations at a time when I had done only a few of them myself. (I did a lot of research….)

 How is this relevant to the workplace? It is a good tool for employees to use for personal confidence-building – and for supervisors to use when coaching employees who lack confidence or who are starting something new and unfamiliar. It gives employees permission to be in a learning mode and lowers their personal or professional barriers to learning.

It also encourages employees to solve problems and take risks. Implicit in this saying is the notion, “just because I haven’t done something doesn’t mean I can’t figure out how to do it.” Also implicit: “And in the meantime, I will not whine or freak out, but will remain calm and professional.”

 What else does “Fake it ‘til you make it” say to you? ~Amy Stephson

To Terminate or Not

Many employers are very averse to terminating employees. This is a good thing: we all need to earn a living and depriving someone of their livelihood, particularly in this economy, is not something to be taken lightly.   

What I see a lot of, however, is employers keeping employees who are nonperforming, toxic, or both (they often go together) well beyond their pull date.  So long as the employee doesn’t steal or punch someone out, the employer holds off on termination.  There are a number of reasons for this, most of which come down to fear of a lawsuit.

Lawsuits are not good for employers.  They drain money, time, and energy.  If an employee was terminated improperly, a court may order the person reinstated.  Employment lawyers, therefore, rightly advise clients to get their ducks in a row before firing someone.  This consists primarily of documentation of the problems and efforts to work with the employee on remedying them.

So what if the employee is a huge problem but the documentation is weak?  (See my earlier post on documentation.)  Should an employer always take the time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s before terminating the employee?  The answer requires analysis of a number of factors:

  1. How bad is the behavior or performance?  Obviously, really bad requires less documentation.
  2. Is there any reason to believe that the offending employee truly hasn’t been given notice and an opportunity to correct his or her ways?  If so, this notice and opportunity needs to be given.  (Do not, however, be derailed by bogus employee protestations that they were unaware of the problems – particularly in situations where  you know that management spoke with the employee on a number of occasions.)
  3. Is there something other than termination that might resolve the issues, e.g., a transfer to a different location or workgroup, a different job, a different supervisor, etc.?  If the employee is represented by a union, his or her union rep may be able to help with this.
  4. Does the employee acknowledge there is a problem? If not, it will be impossible to fix the situation short of termination.
  5. What impact is the offending employee having on the work group?  As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, a toxic employee can have a devastating effect on morale and productivity.  If nothing else, the fact that management does not seem to be addressing the problem can itself wreak havoc in a workplace.
  6. What impact is the offending employee having on the bottom line?  If the employee is not bringing in money or is costing the employer money, that is a valid factor to be considered.
  7. Does the employer have Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI)?  This is an insurance product that covers businesses against claims by workers that their legal rights as employees have been violated.  If an employer lacks insurance and could not afford defense costs even in a frivolous case, the calculus becomes more difficult.

Finally, there is the overall question: which is worse: a lawsuit or keeping this person around?  If the answer is keeping them around, termination is in order.  And if litigation results, so be it.

 Are there other considerations that should go into this type of termination decision?  ~Amy Stephson

Is Training the Right Answer?

As you might imagine, it depends.  Let’s look at a few workplace challenges and see.

Situation 1:  You’ve just learned that though there are a number of anti-harassment policies on the books at your workplace, no one really knows about them.  Is training the right answer?  Probably.  Many court cases have shown that even if you have policies, if you’ve never provided anti-harassment training to your employees, you could be held liable for any illegal harassment they perpetrate. So what do you have to do?  It doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated.  An hour or two to go over the policies, talk about the gray areas (there are many), answer questions, lay out some scenarios for folks to think about – that could be sufficient.  This is really about raising awareness and understanding.  You could do more, but this minimum will work for a start.  Do document that you provided the training, and keep a record of who attended – best done by having employees sign into the training and attest with their signature that they received a copy of the policy.

Situation 2: You’ve just had yet another complaint about one of your supervisors.  She tends to lose her temper and yell at her subordinates.  She sometimes apologizes later, but not always.  This has been going on for years – and other than this, she’s really a pretty good employee.  Is training the right answer?  Maybe.  But first, expectations need to be set by her supervisor, who needs to be clear with her that yelling at her subordinates (even if she later apologizes) is not acceptable.  Likely this has become a habit for her when she gets frustrated, so she’ll need to learn other (acceptable) ways to cope with her frustrations.  It’s unlikely that simply sending her to a communication or supervisory skills workshop will address her specific needs, but she may get tips at such a workshop that she can use.  So, if you send her, tell her you expect her to return with specific strategies to use when her employees frustrate her, instead of yelling at them.  Then, regularly monitor her to ensure she’s applying what she learned in the workshop.   Providing some individual coaching for her would actually be a better approach because a coach could help her with specific employee situations that frustrate her.

Situation 3:  Yours is, and has been, a very negative workplace.  Everyone gripes, makes snide comments, and puts their coworkers down.  Employees complain about management, the work, the customers and each other.  It’s pretty much always been like this. Good employees regularly leave for other environments that are more positive, which just leaves everyone else with more negative things to say.   Is training the right answer?  Training might be part of the right answer, but this is first and foremost a culture change issue, not a training issue.  To change how people behave in this organization, management will first need to lead a commitment process that speaks to values that promote positive behavior and good customer service.  Then they will need to set performance expectations around those values, hold themselves and their supervisors accountable for meeting those expectations, and finally hold their employees accountable for them as well.  Then, if needed, it may be appropriate to provide training for staff in how to behave to live those new positive values.

So, though we’re often tempted to fix all workplace problems by providing some training, it’s not necessarily the right (or only) answer.  As someone once said, if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  Expand your toolbox!

Have you had a good (or not so good) experience using training to solve a workplace problem?  We’d love to hear from you!  ~Daphne Schneider