Category Archives: Workplace Culture

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

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

The culture of behaving badly

Have you ever heard about people behaving badly and, when outsiders hear about it, they wonder, “How in the world could that have happened? Why didn’t somebody stop them?  Why didn’t somebody do something?”  In spite of having conducted more than 300 workplace investigations and having been in the workplace as an employee for many years before that, I have to admit that I’m still sometimes taken aback by such behavior.  That’s why I’ve thought a lot about this issue.

 Nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts had some of the same thoughts when he saw the footage of the four Marines urinating on Taliban bodies. And, he has an explanation: he says war is insanity, and so people behave in war (and think it’s normal) in ways they’d never behave otherwise.  I think he’s right – but I think there’s more to it than that.

 We know that every workplace has its own culture.  People who work in that culture for a long time – or a short very intense time –sometimes behave in ways there that they would never behave elsewhere.  They sometimes seem to forget the norms of the ‘outside world’ and adapt to and adopt the norms of their workplaces.  I expect this is really a survival mechanism, and I’ve seen it time after time:

  • The office where everyone shares very private aspects of their lives and the newcomer, who might ordinarily keep those to herself, joins in in order to become accepted – telling things she doesn’t even tell her best friends.
  • The crew where new hires are regularly bullied and mistreated by those who have been around a while until they become senior and bully the newcomers – even though they’re nice people who wouldn’t hurt a fly in other environments.
  • The work group where vendors regularly bring a fifth of Scotch to share with the group on a Friday afternoon before they all get in their cars to drive home – even though the same people always have a designated driver when they go out.
  • The Wall Street employee who wouldn’t dream of cheating at cards with friends but practices insider trading because that’s just how everyone does things at his firm.

 It’s very easy to lose sight of the forest when you find yourself sitting under a tree – and to forget that what looks normal from under that tree may be totally warped from a quarter mile away.  It’s important to maintain touchpoints outside the workplace with which you compare what’s going on inside, and to look critically at those behaviors that seem normal in that setting but would be unacceptable elsewhere. 

 Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the workplace norms were very different from your own values or acceptable behaviors outside?  How did you handle it?  Let us know!  ~Daphne Schneider





The Sexualized Workplace

Each time I think that everyone FINALLY understands what is and is not appropriate behavior in the workplace, something happens to remind me that’s just not so.

Not long ago I investigated a situation that resulted not from a complaint (as is most commonly the case) but from a concern management had about a particular work group.  As I talked with employees in that group, I discovered that nearly everyone (that is, men and women, older and younger) participated in

 • Sexual banter, off-color jokes and comments about one another’s body parts

• Light punching, grabbing and slapping butts, bumping into one another

• Sharing of stories about porn watched on-line and visits to topless bars.

I bet you’re thinking: wow – this sounds like a construction site in the 60’s! Well – it wasn’t a construction site, and my work here was recent. What’s going on? It turns out that the folks working here are all nice people. They were very willing to talk with me. By and large they just didn’t see the problem – except that a couple of them shared that they were uncomfortable when these interactions went “over the line”- wherever they thought that was. The rest of the time they thought the banter and joking simply served to make the workplace a more fun place to be.

Where was management in this? They had conducted anti-harassment training – which no one took seriously since everyone played (or appeared to play) along with the above exchanges. Management was shocked when I told them what I found. We discussed what to do, and I suggested the following:

• Establish clear workplace expectations: even if everyone there thinks it’s ok, a sexualized workplace is not acceptable.

• Be very specific about what is and is not acceptable. Give clear examples – even if they’re embarrassing to repeat. Don’t want employees to brag about the size of their breats or genitals? Tell them that’s not acceptable. Don’t want them to talk about the exotic dancers they went to see last night? Tell them that. You get the idea.

• Include an expectation that management be informed when anyone violates these expectations. Watching silently is not an option.

• Be clear about the consequences for violating the expectations.

Why such a big deal? Isn’t everyone just having a little fun at work?  It’s a big deal because not only does this kind of activity interfere with work performance, but it’s entirely possible that someday a new employee will be hired who won’t put up with it – and when they file a harassment lawsuit and cost the employer tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars – not to speak of poor publicity – it’s a high price to pay.

Have you successfully dealt with the problem of a sexualized workplace? What did you do that worked? We’d love to know! ~Daphne Schneider

New Supervisor Revisited

The moment I read Amy’s blog from last week (Top Ten New Supervisor Skills) I knew I had to use my time and space this week to expand on a couple of her points.  I’ve often mentioned that much of what I know about effective workplaces comes from years of conducting workplace investigations (before that I actually was a manager for quite a number of years, and also speak from that experience.)  Several of the points Amy made last week really hit home with me because a number of my recent investigations have underscored their importance. 

  • Understand your new role and maintain boundaries…You don’t want to go partying and drinking with your subordinates.  But why not?  They were your friends before you became a supervisor – why can’t they remain your friends?  This is a really, really tough one.  As someone who was friends over the years with several people I supervised, I can tell you this: it does make it more difficult to treat them the same way you treat subordinates who are not friends.  And, even if you do treat them the say way, you will ALWAYS be perceived as playing favorites.  So, even if you are able to split your brain into work and play and never allow the one to influence the other, coworkers and other subordinates will simply never believe you can do this and will always believe, as I’ve found in investigation after investigation, that you’re playing favorites.  It really is best to separate yourself from your subordinates, though it is admittedly difficult.
  • Learn the fundamentals of delegating, directing and coaching.  I have coached many new supervisors.  A common belief of people in that position is, “Now that I’m the supervisor, things will FINALLY be done right – my way!”  A couple of points to keep in mind: things will be done exactly as you want them done only if you do them yourself – and in most supervisory jobs that not only defeats the purpose of being a supervisor, but is just plain impossible.  So, get over that thought.  Decide what things absolutely have to be done a certain way (and no, not everything does) and let the rest go.  Your subordinates have their own methods and styles, and that gives them pride in the work they do and a sense of ownership.  Help them and coach them and mentor them – but realize that they are (by and large) quite competent to do the work. And, if one of them is not, treat that person as the exception in need of additional help and don’t assume that everyone else needs the same level of support and direction.
  • Understand the larger system in which you work.  In your new role it is now your job to relay what top management wants, and the values of the organization, to your staff.  One of the most common things I encounter in my work is the supervisory (or other) employee who publicly fights management because he/she believes they are doing something ‘wrong.’  In this case ‘wrong’ is not illegal, immoral, unethical or unprofessional.  It’s just not the way that employee thinks it should be done.  As a supervisor you are paid to represent management to your staff and unless you are directed to do something illegal, immoral, unethical or unprofessional, that’s what you need to do – without criticizing it to your staff.  It may not be the way you’d like to do it or even the way you think it ‘should’ be done, and you can and should express your concerns to management in private.  But, once the decision is made to go in a certain direction, as a supervisor it is now your job to lead your staff in that direction.  This can be one of the toughest lessons for new supervisors – it certainly was for me!  And, if you find you simply can’t do that, find a work setting that’s a better fit – staying in a place where you think management often does things ‘wrong’ can give you a heart attack.

As I was thinking about these and the other skills for new supervisors, it occurred  to me that they’re certainly not just important for new supervisors, but for all supervisors and managers.

Do you agree?  Disagree? Have you faced the challenge of being a new supervisor?  What happened?  ~ Daphne Schneider




The Power of the Bystander

Bullying, badmouthing, ostracism and other forms of negative behavior in the workplace can be surprisingly difficult to address.  The targets and other employees may be scared to report the problems for fear of retribution by the offender. If they do report problems, it can be time consuming and unpleasant for management to investigate, make findings, and discipline the offender because he or she often reacts with anger and denial to the accusations. If discipline is imposed, the offender may use every form of appeal possible, be it a union grievance or complaint to upper management.

Those who work on bullying (and harassment) issues, particularly in the K-12 school setting, have long discussed the role and importance of the bystander. As one website notes, some bystanders instigate, encourage or join the bullying, but most just “passively accept it by watching and doing nothing.” This occurs for a variety of reasons, e.g., the bystanders feel it’s none of their business, fear becoming targets themselves, or don’t know how to intervene.

The effect of this silence and inaction, of course, is that the offender is empowered and the target feels even more hopeless and isolated.

Management should educate employees about the power of the bystander and techniques to stop poor behaviors by their co-workers.

So what can bystanders do to change this dynamic? They can speak up and address the negative behaviors as they’re occurring (“I don’t think this conversation is appropriate. Let’s move on.”) They can change the subject (“Anyone want to xxx?”) They can simply go and stand by the target in order to break the negative energy and make a silent statement. Later, they can document what happened and report it to management, anonymously if necessary.

And what is management’s role? It can educate employees about the power of the bystander and techniques to isolate the offenders and show them that their behavior is noticed and unacceptable. The goal is to get everyone on board feeling empowered to help stop the toxic behaviors. Equally importantly, management should tell employees that it will protect those who come forward with complaints and ensure that there is no retaliation by the offender. Management must then follow through on this.

It takes a village – and a lot of work – to stop a bully or other toxic personality in a workgroup. But the problem won’t go away by itself and using discipline as the sole tool can be frustrating and ineffective.

Any other thoughts about the power of the bystander? ~Amy Stephson

Shorts, tanks, flip-flops…yikes!

It’s a glorious sunny summer day and predicted to be quite warm, so Sherry puts on her flowing, cool halter-neck dress and her fanciest sandals and heads off to the office. Meanwhile, James is putting on his blue-green striped shorts, matching blue shirt and sandals, while Carmelita pulls out her favorite summery beige miniskirt and orange and yellow striped tank top with those great bright yellow sunny high-healed sandals. Lin, meanwhile, feels quite daring as he puts on his light blue Dockers and white polo shirt , and Kanisha wears her tan suit, white blouse and open-toed heels. And, they all work in the same office!

Summer is here (yes, it really is…) and so are the annual questions of appropriate workplace attire that come with it. Most workplaces today don’t have dress codes that are very useful for actually determining what the expectations are – they tend to say things like, “Dress should be appropriate and professional” – like you couldn’t have figured that out?

So, how do you know what’s ok to wear to the office and what’s not? Here are five key guidelines to help you:

1. Consider the message: what do you want your boss, co-workers, customers or clients to think when they see you? Send a message that’s as universally professional as possible, yet not stuffy – be comfortable, casual, appropriate to the setting.

2. Office casual oes not mean clothing that you’d wear to the beach, for yard work, to the dance club, for exercise or sport.

3. Too much skin in the form of excessive cleavage, or exposed back, chest or stomach is a no-no – as is clothing that shows bra or underwear.

4. Avoid words and pictures on clothing that may in any way be offensive. Generally, sports team, university or fashion brand names are acceptable if the print or logo isn’t too large.

5. Ensure that all clothing is neat, clean, pressed and in good repair – that means no unhemmed pants or skirts and no tears.

Finally, check with your supervisor or human resources before coming to work wearing any of these – even in summer in a casual office: shorts (even longer /Bermuda shorts), jeans, tank tops, leggings, short/mini skirts, Hawaiian shirts, and t-shirts if worn without a jacket (they’re generally acceptable under a jacket).

So, what about our employees? Sherry might be able to get away with the dress if she has a sweater over it and pins the high slit. If James has confirmed that shorts are ok, and that sandals without socks are acceptable, he’s fine if he tucks in that shirt – but he needs to confirm both of those before wearing that outfit to work. Carmelita’s outfit is likely inappropriate: the skirt is too short, the tank to too revealing. The shoes might or might not be acceptable, depending on how racy they are. Lin may feel unorthodox – but he’s just fine. As for Kanisha – she might even be overdressed if this office encourages casual attire during the summer!

What’s been your experience with office dress codes in summer? Have you ever had to talk with an employee about the appropriateness of their attire?  Let us know!  ~Daphne Schneider