Email in the Workplace: Do’s and Don’t’s

Recently, I did a coaching project and an investigation, each of which arose primarily due to the misuse of email. And the resolution of each partially involved developing some guidelines about email communication.

I am sympathetic to our use of email over other forms of communication given how easy and convenient it is. Plus, unlike a phone call, you can control when you read and when you send.

For many reasons, however, using email for anything beyond basic communication is risky. First, most email writers are busy and when drafting an email, don’t take the time to be precise and clear. Many of us don’t really even know how to be precise and clear: writing is difficult! The result: miscommunication.

Second, email writing tends to be flat: it does not convey the range of meaning that body language or one’s voice conveys. Again, the result: miscommunication.

Third, email is simply not the appropriate medium to discuss complex or sensitive issues because, again, that only invites miscommunication. And worse: it can lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and even complaints. Because many of us are uncomfortable with complexity and emotion, however, we are relieved to not have to talk about such things in person or by phone – and therefore use email.

Finally, many of us don’t read most emails very carefully. So even if it’s clearly written, fairly straightforward, and not on an sensitive or emotional topic, some readers will miss the point.

And we’re not even talking about emails with inappropriate subject matter such as sexual jokes or racist comments.

So, what can be done, given email’s ubiquity and usefulness? I’ve come up with some rules. Ideally, employers would communicate these in advance to all employees who use email in their jobs. Reminders don’t hurt either.

  • If an email involves anything substantive, take the time to ensure that it is clear and complete. Do not just dash something off. Take a minute or two to think — and then proofread.
  • If an email string is developing, stop and decide if it makes more sense to talk in person about the issue. Go to the other person’s desk, pick up the phone, or send a reply that says, “Let’s talk about this” with a suggested time.
  • If a topic is complex or sensitive, consider communicating in a different way. A meeting, a phone call, a memo — one of these will often work better.
  • Keep your sentences and paragraphs short and your font reasonably sized. (Fie on Gmail for its small, boring font!) Do what you can to ensure that your readers will actually read and understand your message.
  • If you’re a manager, do not criticize subordinates in email. Talk to them. And if a writing is necessary, document the problem in an appropriate way.
  • Do not copy people into emails unless it is necessary. First, it clogs up people’s email boxes. Second, you know why you included a particular recipient, but that person  may not know why you have copied them in or may not be paying attention. Finally, if the message is the least bit negative, the direct recipient may feel that you’re defaming or undermining them with others.
  • The previous rule applies doubly strong to “Reply All.” Think before hitting that button.
  • Do not rely on long email strings to communicate a point. Restate the point or if appropriate, at least indicate where the relevant information can be found, e.g., “Please check so-and-so’s email of [date and time].”
  • If you think the other person is in error or has forgotten something, do not say, “That’s incorrect” or “You have forgotten X” or the like. Instead, say something along the lines of “My recollection is that we decided to do X” and then explain. Better yet, talk about the issue in person.
  • Keep emails will polite and respectful. No accusations or snarky or rude comments. Emails last forever.

Do you have any other email rules? ~Amy Stephson

Headphones at Work: Part 2

More than three years ago, I wrote a post about headphones at work. The post set out a number of problems with the use of headphones and also listed a number of situations in which wearing headphones at work may be appropriate if permission is granted. At the end, I asked if maybe it was easier to just ban headphones altogether. I still get occasional responses to this question: a resounding no.

Last November, the Seattle Times had an article subtitled “The science of picking the right music at work” (searchable at different sites). The article stated, “An extensive body of research shows what headphone wearers have known for years: When wielded the right way, music and noise can increase your output and make the workday go by faster.” The article outlined several instances where studies show that music can help employees:

  • For repetitive work such as data entry, it aids productivity.
  • To decompress after a tense meeting, listening to rhythmically simple music with 70-90 beats per minute can help.
  • To stay alert without caffeine, you want a good syncopated beat of 120-140 beats per minute.
  • For moderate-skill workers doing computer code, productivity increases if they can listen to the music of their choice.

What interested me the most, as a workplace coach, was research showing that positive, affirming lyrics are also important. The article noted, for example, that this can particularly help before a presentation or job interview.

So does this mean that headphones are always a good idea at work? Of course not. It does suggest, however, that employers will not want to have a knee-jerk “No” response if employees want to wear them. Rather, employers will want to create evidence-based and fair headphone rules. These will consider what the job requires, how to address safety or distraction concerns, and whether compromises are necessary, e.g., allowing an employee to wear them for only part of the day or during certain tasks, or requiring the employee to use an ear bud in one ear only.

What if an employee wants to listen to books on tape or NPR ?  ~Amy Stephson

Should You Investigate? Part 2

Last time we talked about Sally, who had come to management saying she was being “harassed” and was working in a “hostile work environment.” Management took her to HR. But then what?

Too often, what happens next is one of two things. If Sally is a difficult employee, has been known to complain in the past, or if the person she is complaining about is well liked, the inclination is to dismiss Sally’s complaint and do nothing. The other thing that often happens at this point is that a formal investigation is immediately started – either internally or by bringing in an external investigator. Either of these might be the correct response…BUT NOT YET. Without knowing more about the issue, it is not possible to determine what steps should be taken. Just because an employee uses words like “harassment” or “discrimination” or “hostile work environment,” it does not necessarily mean you will need to conduct a full-blown investigation.

The first thing to do (after taking the steps described last time to protect the employee and assure the integrity of any future investigation), is to perform a high-level review of the facts as Sally presents them. Here are some things you should consider in deciding about next steps:

  • Determine whether Sally’s complaint is general (e.g., Henry is mean and unfair in the way he treats his staff) or specific (e.g., yesterday he gave Sally a frontal hug, stroking her back and making her very uncomfortable.)
  • If what Sally is telling you is new to you, listen carefully in a neutral, non-judgmental manner, and take notes without making any editorial comments.
  • If what Sally is telling you is not new, determine whether prior complaints about the issue she is raising have been looked into. If they were, what happened? If they were not, why not? Use this information as part of your guide for action.
  • Not all complaints require an investigation. If Sally’s complaint is more general in nature, it may require an organizational assessment or an assessment of the skills of the manager, rather than an investigation.
  • If Sally’s claim leads you to believe that your policies (or laws) may have been violated, are these violations of policies/laws against discrimination, harassment, ethics, employee conduct, etc.? If not – Sally may still be unhappy, and her unhappiness will still need to be addressed, but not from a policy violation perspective and not by an investigation.

It is very important to understand the basics of the problem or issue before addressing it. In many of the investigations I have conducted over the years, I’ve not seen that anything illegal has happened. In fact, frequently no company policies or laws have even been violated, and sometimes the employer could have determined that quickly without even calling me. In many of these cases what I have seen is poor communication, employees who are unhappy for a variety of reasons, and supervisors and managers who may have good technical skills but don’t have people skills.

So remember:

  • Don’t ignore employee complaints.
  • Employees don’t have to come to you with their complaints – they can go directly to their attorney or an outside rights agency. If they do that, it will cost you a lot more (time, money, good will and reputation). Create a workplace where employees want to resolve their issues internally by coming to you rather than going outside.
  • If you can’t be neutral in hearing an employee complaint (without assuming there either is or is not a violation of policies or laws), have someone else deal with the situation.
  • Respond appropriately. If it’s likely an allegation of a violation, investigate. If it’s likely a complaint of poor supervision, management, communication, etc., you may need to assess the situation further, but you likely won’t need to investigate.

So, before either dismissing a complaint that is brought to you, or immediately beginning a full-blown investigation, take the time to really assess what you know and determine the best way to approach the situation. You’ll be much more satisfied with the results!

Have you responded to an employee complaint with an assessment rather than an investigation? What happened? We’d love to hear! ~Daphne Schneider

 

Should You Investigate? Part 1

You just got an employee complaint…Oh, what to do, what to do???

I’ve been pondering this question after years of conducting workplace investigations for clients. After about 350 investigations, the results are interesting: in at least 75% of the situations, nothing illegal has happened. So, should there have been an investigation? It depends.

I have found that some clients immediately choose to investigate when an employee uses what I think of as the big trigger words: harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment. Almost everyone in this day and age has heard these words tossed around. They’re in the media all the time. But few of those who use them understand them to have legal definitions based on statutes and case law.

So here’s what sometimes happens: Sally tells someone in management she’s being harassed and is working in a hostile work environment. That person (rightly) report that allegation to either human resources (if it exists in that workplace) or upper management/the CEO. And then I get a call. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

So what should a manager do when someone comes report that they are being harassed, or are working in a hostile work environment? Shouldn’t you just drop everything and call in the investigator? NOT YET. (Yes, I know I may lose some work by saying this.)

What to do instead? Take the following steps, in this order, and then decide whether you need an investigator.

  1. Assure Sally she will be protected from any retaliation in connection with her complaint (and yes, by saying these words to a supervisor or manager, she has already made a complaint). Ask her to tell you if she feels she is being retaliated against in connection with this complaint – and remind her not to retaliate against anyone else. Any retaliation against her (or by her) in this situation is illegal under both Washington state and federal laws.
  1. Have Sally meet with someone who has been trained to deal with such situations. If no such person exists in your company or organization, do bring in an investigator to interview her appropriately. Then get several people trained in these basic interviewing skills. 
  1. If Sally’s complaint is about one or two specific incidents, ask her to write it up, with as much detail as possible. Then have her sign, date and give the written statement to you (you’d be surprised how many such statements are neither signed nor dated.) If you have an actual complaint form for such situations, of course do ask her to complete that as well.
  1. Ask Sally not to discuss her complaint with her colleagues. This is a very important request, for the sake of your ability to deal with the situation professionally. However, you should not make this a directive. The National Labor Relations Board has indicated that forbidding employees to discuss workplace concerns may be illegal.

Once you have information from Sally, if that information indicates that she has examples of behavior that could be harassing or create a hostile work environment under the law, you must investigate or hire an investigator to do so. Failing to do that could cause an additional complaint against the employer.

And, document, document, document. Note when Sally first came to you, what she said, and what you and others did. Keep that documentation indefinitely.

In my next post, I’ll be providing some additional information about questions to ask (or not ask) in that initial interview, and what else to do (or not do!)

Have you had employees come to you with allegations of discrimination, harassment or hostile work environment? What did you do that worked, or didn’t? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider

Workplace Favoritism: Perception vs. Reality

favoritism

Favoritism in the workplace is bad. There’s little debate about that. If a manager favors his or her friends, college buddies, fellow poker players or baseball fans, sorority sisters, or whatever, this can have a highly negative impact on the morale and productivity of those who are not favored. So if you’re a manager who is doing this, stop it!

Favoritism can also be illegal. If a manager favors those of a particular protected class (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), it can be discrimination against those who are disfavored. Similarly, if a manager retaliates against employees who have complained about, e.g., workplace safety or harassment, by favoring those who haven’t complained, that can be illegal retaliation. If a manager favors his or her romantic partner, that’s more complicated – it’s not good for morale or productivity, but may or may not be illegal depending on the circumstances.

Thus far we’ve talked about real favoritism. What’s more complex but not uncommon is employees who wrongly perceive favoritism when it’s really just management tending to turn to good workers rather than those who are not. An example: Employee “Gallant” is reliable, hard-working, and committed. Employee “Goofus” is none of these. [This is a test of your age, by the way. My older readers will get the references in these names; others may not.] Manager selects Gallant for special projects more than he or she selects Goofus – and selection for special projects is a coveted perk.

Many Goofuses will perceive this as unfair favoritism, as opposed to seeing that the manager is selecting the employee who will get the work done. This can create problems, particularly when Goofus decides that the alleged favoritism is not only unfair but is illegal discrimination or retaliation – often not that hard a case to make even if it’s not true.

So what can an employer do to try to prevent such situations? Often the problem is that the manager does not realize how his or her selection process appears to others. It just seems obvious: I’ll select the best person for the job. But one can’t necessarily expect Goofus to have the self-insight to understand what’s going on. It is essential, therefore, for managers to be sensitive to perceived favoritism and to explain to Goofus (and the workgroup in general) how the selection process works and how employees can qualify.

Done in a supportive, not punitive, manner (and without holding up Gallant as an example of what to strive for) this can serve as an incentive for Goofus and the workgroup as a whole to improve their performance.

Will this always work? Of course not: some employees are unable or unwilling to hold themselves accountable and will always blame others. But if management’s efforts to create a level playing field are documented, at least it will have some defense against potential lawsuits alleging discrimination or harassment.

Any other thoughts out there? ~Amy Stephson

The “Perception Is Reality” Trap

We all know the phrase, “perception is reality.” And in a psychological sense it is true: we all experience the world through our own lens and that is our reality.

In the world of human resources management, however, I find that this phrase can muddy up the analysis necessary to effectively lead and manage employees. This occurs particularly in workplace investigation and conflict resolution contexts where it is all too easy to be sucked into an unreasonable employee’s perceptual wormhole.

Here’s how problems arise. When applying harassment policies, we are taught that it’s the impact of an employee’s actions on another that matter rather than the employee’s intent. This is often true: someone may think they’re “joking” when they make a sexist or racist remark, but regardless of their intent, such remarks can still be harassment based on their impact on the recipient.

This does not mean, however, that any and all perceptions, i.e., impacts, are created equal. Because the law also provides that the recipient’s reaction to an action or remark must be “reasonable,” i.e., based on some objective reality. Some examples:

  • A female employee sees posted in a male employee’s cubicle a birthday card with a scantily clad female on the front. Can she ask management to direct him to take down the card? Sure. Can she argue that the card in and of itself has created a hostile work environment for her? Not so much. However upset she may be about the card, her perceptions do not trump the fact that a reasonable woman would not find her workplace imbued with gender hostility based on a co-worker’s birthday card with a bikini-clad woman on the front. And she needs to be told that. [And yes, this was a real case.]
  • An employee contends that he feels “unsafe” after his supervisor critiques his job performance in a closed door meeting. Or he contends that the supervisor was “abusive” for telling him he could be terminated if his repeated tardiness continued. The employer will certainly want to check into these allegations to make sure the supervisor did not behave inappropriately. But once the employer is comfortable that the supervisor was just doing his or her job, the complaining employee must be told that in no uncertain terms.

It’s hard to tell a complaining employee “in no uncertain terms” that his or her perceptions are incorrect. Such messages must be delivered kindly and without any suggestion that the employee is lying or crazily hypersensitive.

In appropriate cases, moreover, management may want to take some steps to at least partially acknowledge the complaint (“We have told him to take the birthday card down” “Would you rather meet with your supervisor in a conference room next time?”) But it is critical at the same time not to enable or encourage employees to maintain their unreasonable perceptions.

Why not just give in? After all, that “unreasonable” employee may decide to bring a lawsuit against an employer for not taking the actions he or she demanded. So yes, it is important for an employer to take complaints seriously even in cases involving “perceptually challenged” employees.

At the same time, such employees often have a highly negative impact on both co-workers and managers, to the point that these others may leave. After the due diligence is completed, therefore, it is equally important to insist on a level of sanity and reason in the workplace.

Any additional thoughts on this issue? ~Amy Stephson

Is there life after an investigation? Part 2

Last month I discussed how to get back to normal (or at least establish a new normal that works) after a workplace investigation. I suggested that the first things to do are

  • Conclude the investigation as quickly as possible,
  • Split up the complainant and respondent, if at all possible, and
  • Acknowledge any fault on the part of the employer.

There are a number of other things you can do that will increase the chances of a healthy tomorrow.

Set a goal going forward, and be as specific as you can. For example, assist the workgroup that went through the investigation in focusing on what, specifically, they need to accomplish together in the next quarter. Get their minds off of what happened, and on to reaching the next goal. You can’t just tell them to forget what happened. They won’t. But you can, and should, help them refocus.

Show them you care. Demonstrate caring – don’t just talk about it. Listen. Empathize. Respect people’s feelings. Do things that demonstrate that the staff members are important to you. And show that you care both about the people who are still employed with you, and those who left (whether they chose to leave or were dismissed). Never make negative comments publicly.

Address the fears. After an investigation, people will be afraid: afraid it could happen to them. Afraid they wouldn’t be believed if it did. Afraid they could be wrongly accused. Afraid nothing will change. Afraid things will change. Address the fears. To the extent possible, give information about what happened, and how the issues that were brought out in the investigation are being addressed. Acknowledge the fears, and make it OK to talk about them. This is hard – acknowledge that it’s hard, and that working together, with a common goal and management that cares, you can make it through this crisis and come out better in the end.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. You’ll likely have to have the same conversation several times. Don’t get impatient. Each person works through a workplace crisis (and yes, an investigation can be a crisis) at his or her own pace. Remember that in the absence of information from you, people will make up their own information and see it as truth. They’ll develop reasons and explanations – which may or may not have anything to do with fact. So, provide information, lots of it – communicate.  And keep communicating. Not only will this address the fear and anxiety, over time it will build trust.

Check out Jay Shepherd’s Result Triangle in which he addresses these three steps for helping people move in a particular direction.

Finally, keep yourself from going crazy. Be sure you have trusted colleagues with whom you can work this through. You need someone in whom to confide, someone to talk to. If you find yourself going crazy, take a deep breath. Take a time-out. Don’t react – you risk long-term negative consequences to your workplace if you let your emotions take over. If you find that starting to happen, take a break.

And remember: this too shall pass.

Do you have other tips or insights for recovering from investigations? Please share them! ~ Daphne Schneider