Category Archives: Working successully

Some Basic Truths

A couple of recent situations I’ve encountered have prompted me to think once again about some basic workplace truths.  I’m talking about them here because I find that when folks forget them, the result is often a huge headache from hitting one’s head against a brick wall.  So, here they are:

Situation #1:  Susan and Jeff work together, and very much enjoy each other’s company.  They sometimes go out to lunch together, often carpool, and frequently sit in one another’s cubicles talking – both about their work, and about other things. Everyone is convinced they’re having an affair.   Truth #1: If sex is seen as possible, sex is seen as probable.  Corollary to Truth #1: Appearances count, and perception is viewed as reality.

Situation #2: Harriet is Mark’s lead worker.  She and Mark are quite friendly with each other, and both are friendly with the rest of the team as well.  On that team there’s a lot of sexual banter in which Harriet, Mark and others participate.  Sometimes it actually gets personal and physical: Harriet has made comments about Mark’s “package” as she reaches toward his crotch, and Mark has made comments about Harriet’s “girls”  as he cups his hand and reaches toward her chest.  Truth #2: Even if everyone is participating, the fact that Harriet is a lead worker makes the situation rife for a  sexual harassment claim against her that will  likely stick.

Situation #3:  Cindy had a really bad experience at her former job when she complained about harassment and about not being paid for overtime, and was then fired in retaliation.  In her current job she has some concerns too, based on comments her supervisor has made that remind her of what happened to her before.  She’s afraid of being fired again, so sends an anonymous letter to Human Resources complaining about the supervisor.   Nothing happens.  Truth #3: Human Resources (or management) can only investigate a situation if they have enough information to do that.  Going on a witch hunt based on vague and anonymous allegations tends to be a bad idea. 

Situation #4:  Cindy (from Situation 3) didn’t see any action based on her anonymous letter, so she actually went to Human Resources with her complaint, even though she feared retaliation.  When she was asked for details, all she could say was that she had a feeling that this situation would turn out the same way as her last work experience.  She was afraid of what her supervisor might do to harass her, and she was fearful of retaliation if she complained.  Truth #4: No action can be taken against your boss because you are afraid he/she is going to do something or are afraid of retaliation.  Action can only be taken if they have done something, or if they have already retaliated against you.

Situation #5:  Francie’s boss yells a lot.  He yells at her, and he yells at her co-workers (Alan, Sam and Leslie).  He has a bad temper, and loses it about once a week.  When that happens, he yells.  He asks why he has such stupid employees, and why they just can’t seem to do things right.  He calls them idots.  Truth #5: Being an obnoxious boss is not illegal.  Often, it does not violate company policy.  This kind of obnoxious boss has not created a “hostile work environment” according to law, even though you may feel you’re working in exactly such an environment.  That said, the employer who tolerates this kind of behavior likelyl will lose good employees when they go elsewhere. 

Keep these basic truths in mind as you navigate the workplace and you’ll likely have a less stressful time at work because you won’t be hitting your head against brick walls, trying to change things that won’t change.

Have you had experience with these truths?  Do you have others to add to the list?  Let us know!  ~Daphne Schneider

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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

Let’s Celebrate!!!

Yes, it’s time for all those workplace holiday parties…and, they’re fraught with traps that can turn a fun, collegial time into a disaster.  So, here are some things to keep in mind for a great, safe and fun time:

  1.  Make it a Holiday Party:  By now you’ve likely figured out that a party sponsored by the employer needs to be a “holiday party” – not a Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza party (unless you work in a religious organization).  Yes, I know it’s lame.  And no, no one’s trying to do away with Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanza for that matter…).  But, if you’re the employer, keep it generic.  You don’t want to get back to work after the New Year to find a religion discrimination complaint on your desk.
  2. Make it voluntary:  There may well be employees who, for whatever reason, would rather not party with you.  Let them make that choice, and don’t give them a bad time if they choose not to join you.  If you’re giving everyone who attends the party the afternoon off to do so, let employees who choose not to attend leave work if they want to.
  3. Watch the alcohol (and, in Washington, the marijuana):  The party host (in this case, the employer,) can be held liable if a drunk (or stoned) party-goer leaves, gets in the car, and crashes into something or someone.  Don’t let people leave and drive impaired: arrange for designated drivers or taxis ahead of time, and make sure people use them.
  4. Gift exchanges can be great fun – but limit the amount people should spend and, if you have any reason at all to think that even small amounts of expenditures will be hard on participants, make it a white elephant gift exchange (everyone has something at home they’d like to get rid of!)  It can be just as much (or more) fun – and isn’t that the point?
  5. Make sure everyone’s comfortable: impaired brains sometimes think that behavior that would never be acceptable at work is acceptable at a work party, but that’s not so.  If it would be considered harassment at work, it can result in a complaint if it happens at a work party.  No stolen kisses, pinches or hugs allowed, no off-color jokes, either.
  6. Make sure the rules are clear ahead of time.  Let people know what to expect (food, alcohol, gifts, attire, behavior…) and you’ll all have a great time celebrating!

Happy Holidays to all, and a Happy New Year as well from Daphne and Amy, your Workplace Insiders.

 

~Daphne Schneider

Is there life after conflict?

Like you, I’ve been listening to all the political messages over the past few days and weeks.  I’ve also been thinking about what we can learn from their tone (on all sides) that might transfer to  workplaces.  Now that the election is over, some of the winners are gloating and ridiculing the losers, while some losers batten down the hatches and make excuses for the outcome.  None of these are productive responses, especially since we then expect both sides to suddenly forget all the awful things that were said and work together toward a better future.  Unfortunately, we see very similar behavior in the workplace, especially when conflict happens and the resolution favors one side over the other.

Let’s take this situation: In the Company there’s a budget battle going on in which people are fighting for positions in their departments.  Marketing says that their work is critical to ensuring continuing growth and profitability, that they have smart, creative staff who are really committed to the Company.  They also say that Research and Development (R&D) has been totally mismanaged with expensive exploratory trips and software purchases, and that their staff are stupid in mis-reading the customers and wasting time and money on nonsense.

Meanwhile, the R&D folks are touting the great new products that have been developed by their brilliant employees, which the idiots in Marketing can’t seem to understand because they’re too wrapped up in show and totally lacking in substance.  They’re saying that lagging sales are all Marketing’s fault; Marketing is saying it’s all R&D’s fault for wasting time and money and developing unpopular products.

The Executive Team and CEO finally decide on the budget, cutting R&D rather drastically and putting more money into Marketing. Of course, Marketing is thrilled.  They won!  R&D is hurt, angry, and feeling misunderstood, betrayed and marginalized.  They lost.  Then the CEO directs the two departments to work together closely to ensure success.  After months of mudslinging, is that even possible?  Probably not.  And who really loses?  The Company does.

Is there another way?  I’d suggest there is. The Company needs to create a culture based on the “Five A’s”:

  • Assume positive intent on the part of all parties: everyone wants the Company to succeed.  Everyone wins when the Company is successful.  Everyone loses when it is not.
  • Argue vigorously for issues, perspectives, and points of view while being very gentle with people.  No name calling.  No attacks.  Everyone loses when people are attacked and labels are thrown around (stupid, incompetent, useless,…)  Everyone wins when issues are analyzed and vetted for the best possible outcome for the Company and decisions are made on facts, not personalities.
  • Allow everyone to save face.  People in the workplace have to be able to continue to work together effectively on the other side of the conflict.  If the relationship is torn so badly that one side (or both) believes they have been betrayed, maligned, insulted, or otherwise seriously hurt, working together for the good of the Company becomes very difficult, if not impossible.  People who have lost face look for ways to get revenge – and when they find them (and they do), everyone loses.
  • Acknowledge the past, but move on to the future.  Things will move forward if both winners and losers respect one another’s perspectives and past conflicts, but commit to coming together (that means both sides give some) for the best future for the Company.
  • Advance everyone’s interests by building personal relationships on an ongoing basis so that future conflicts (which are guaranteed to occur) can be worked through and best outcomes achieved.

There will always be conflicts in the workplace, and in our personal and political lives.  There is never enough time, money or staff.  There are different beliefs and values.  It’s not about eliminating these conflicts.  It’s about learning to build relationships and focusing on debating  issues rather than maligning people.  The better we learn to do this in all aspects of our lives, the more likely we can create a greater good for all.

What are your thoughts about how to create a good outcome for all after heated differences?  Please share your ideas!  ~Daphne Schneider

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

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

You’re Just Not the Person I Hired!

I recently read an article in Psychology Today concerning how to tell whether you’re with the right mate.  It included some interesting observations:

  • We alone are responsible for having the relationship we want.
  • When we’re in love, everything about the other person is wonderful. 
  • When “reality rears its head” and we discover inevitable incompatibilities, we can only see the differences we have.
  • When we start seeing these differences, we tend to see them through the lens of what’s wrong with the other person, and what they need to change.
  • Then, our inability to get along with the other person (who we used to think walked on water) becomes their fault – and we can’t do anything about that.

 These insights about intimate relationships got me thinking about the expectations we have for our relationships with people we hire.  When we start a job, it’s pretty common to feel very positive and  hopeful about the people with whom we’re going to be working.  That’s even more the case if we’re the supervisor hiring that new person (of course we wouldn’t hire them if they weren’t just the right person!)  All sort of like falling in love.

 But then, after we’ve worked together for a while,  after the new person has worked for us for a while, the truth sets in.  They’re not perfect.  They’re not the ideal person we thought they would be.  Sometimes it’s as if a switch was flipped (another analogy from this article) and now that perfect new employee just can’t do anything right. 

  • What used to be their great attention to detail is now unbearably boring commentary.
  • What used to be their funny stories about past co-workers is now annoying as they become not-so-funny stories about current employees we like.
  • What used to be a take-charge attitude we admired now feels like bullying and an attempt to take over.

 Our conclusion?  We hired the wrong person!

 Well, maybe not.  To continue applying the analysis from the Psychology Today article, thinking of an employee as right or wrong is using the wrong construct.  No employee you hire will ever be the one and only ‘right’ one. 

 When you discover that that new employee really isn’t so great, refocus.  Ask yourself: why am I suddenly unhappy with this person?  It’s likely not the case that the employee suddenly changed.  Rather, most probably they never were as perfect as you thought them to be and you are now discovering that.  

 So, what to do?  Here are a couple of things to consider:

Remember the positive reasons you hired this person.  They’re likely still there.  Concentrate on them.  Accentuate them.

Address issues that really are matters that bother you only if they are matters of consequence, not just matters of preference.  Rely on that attention to detail – just avoid having to listen to too much of it.  Enjoy the humor, as long as it’s not destructive.  Let go of control so that new employee can have some ownership – it doesn’t all have to be done exactly the way you would have done it.  In other words, decide to change yourself – change the way you view that person.  You have control over that – use that control to quickly improve your outlook and the situation.

Finally, decide to ignore the small irritations you’ve noticed – you’re likely not perfect either!  It’s not worth dwelling on the many things that may irritate you.  Support the positive behaviors and, where at all possible, ignore the irritations.  Don’t let them get to you.  Again, change yourself.

 Following these suggestions will make for a much calmer, healthier and happier relationship with your employee – and will improve your non-work relationships as well!

 Have you found yourself irritated by someone you once thought was wonderful?  How did you handle it?  ~Daphne Schneider