Tag Archives: managing teams

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

 

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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

Five Ways to Lose Good Employees

After parachuting in to hundreds of workplaces, I’ve come to see a number of ways that employers upset, alienate, and eventually lose good employees. They are, in no particular order:

1.  Fail to recognize good work when it happens. I’m not talking an Employee of the Month award, just a timely and sincere expression of appreciation for what the employee did. Consider using the “SAIL” method of recognition, which involves hitting on the following four points:

  • Situation: The problem or opportunity
  • Action: What was done, in specific terms
  • Impact: The result of the action
  • Link to organizational goals or values: how the action contributed to the organization.

And if you’re emailing the recognition, it never hurts to copy someone higher up the chain.

2. Let bad work or behavior go unpunished. When management takes no steps to address poor performance or negative behaviors, it affects the morale of other employees, particularly those who are doing their work faithfully and well. The good performers not only may have to pick up the slack for the poor ones, but they see management’s inaction as indicating that the organization doesn’t value good work and adult behavior. Even if management is taking corrective action of which other employees are unaware, the corrective action may not be very effective if other employees see no changes.

3. Change priorities frequently. Good employees tend to take organizational priorities seriously and work hard to achieve them. When the organization keeps changing those priorities, however, it’s like the boy who cried wolf: employees start to care less about particular projects because history shows that tomorrow, that project will be shelved and another put in its place. For good employees, this is not only frustrating, but it makes their work less rewarding and satisfying.

4. Abuse employees’ trust. Trust is about doing what you say you are going to do and being who you say you are. It’s about showing your staff that you are reliable, responsible and accountable, and that they can rely on you for consistency. It means never discussing one employee with another employee unless you are highlighting his or her accomplishments. Violate these rules at your peril: good employees may just leave.

5. Take credit but not blame. Aside from actual abuse, one of the worst things management can do is to take credit for the achievements of good performers and blame them when things go wrong. When things go well, management should give staff credit. When things don’t go well, it should assume responsibility and not scapegoat.

And a P.S.: Imposition of high expectations without a commitment to providing the necessary resources is another way that management can ensure that its best employees will soon start looking elsewhere.

Is there something else you would put in your top five? Interestingly, a recent Forbes magazine article had a completely different list!  ~Amy Stephson

Clearing the Air After A Workplace Investigation: Part 1

Investigations are a necessary and often beneficial part of the modern workplace.  However, they can also be disruptive and leave bad feelings that may linger for a long time.  After seeing the negative effects of investigations for more than 15 years, I have come up with a few ideas on how to reduce and potentially eliminate those effects. 

 First, it is important to understand the impact an investigation can have on the employees involved in it – regardless of whether the complaint was found to be meritorious or not.  

  • The complainant fears retaliation, ostracism, or just plain being disliked.  He or she may be upset or angry if the investigation did not substantiate the complaint or the response to the complaint is seen as inadequate in some other way. 
  • The respondent may feel embarrassed, betrayed, or unjustly accused by the complainant.  He or she may also fear being disliked or ostracized. If the respondent is the complainant’s supervisor or manager, he or she will have concerns about how to manage the complainant’s performance and behaviors without bringing on charges of retaliation. 
  • The witnesses also fear they may be retaliated against or disliked.  They may feel guilty for informing on a colleague or for not disclosing key information.  They may be angry at having to take sides or just at the workplace drama in general.

So what can be done to address all this?  First, there’s some low hanging fruit:

  • Inform the parties of the outcome. Certain decisions may be confidential, e.g., discipline, but it’s important to inform the complainant(s), those accused, and relevant managers/supervisors of the outcome of the investigation. Sounds obvious, but surprisingly often it doesn’t happen. 
  • Inform the witnesses the investigation is completed. Thank them for their cooperation, remind them it’s confidential, renew assurances of no retaliation, and urge them to come forward if additional incidents occur. Don’t just leave them hanging. 
  • Take the recommended steps. If discipline is warranted, do it. Investiga­tions may highlight the need for training, coaching, conflict resolution and the like. If such actions are needed, do them. Strike while the iron is hot.

More difficult is how to address the continuing and future interactions of the key parties: the complainant, respondent, and possibly their manager.  You can be sure that they feel acutely uncomfortable and tense around each other and wonder if things will ever be “normal” again.  Left to their own devices, they may figure out how to comfortably interact again, but it will take a long time.  And they may never figure it out.  In such cases, it is not uncommon for one or both of the parties to leave their jobs and possibly sue.

In this situation, it is well-worth the time and resources to employ a “normalization” process to help the parties’ relationship get back on track.  In my next post I will discuss this further.  ~Amy Stephson

Finding the Right Bait

In her post last week, Daphne wrote about using the right bait — self interest — to motivate recalcitrant employees who just won’t seem to shape up.  Much as managers and supervisors wish they could say, “Because I said so!” that’s not the reality of the modern workplace (if it ever was). 

The trick is determining the appropriate bait. This is where coaching questions can be very helpful.  First, however, the manager wants to set the stage: after all, the task at hand is actually not optional.  So the manager wants to start with something like: “We’ve talked about your [extended breaks … chatting too much with co-workers … spending too much time on personal cell phone calls … not proofreading your work … ] several times and I am not seeing any changes.  I don’t want to have to escalate this.”

Having set the stage, the manager can now ask questions that hopefully will surface the bait and a plan:

  • What is going on?
  • So what is getting in the way of your doing [x]?
  • What are you saying when you don’t do [x]?
  • What would help you do [x]?
  • What would energize you in your job generally?

Other “what” questions can also work. The trick is to get the employee, not you, talking. And to come up with an enforceable action plan from there.  And to enforce it.

Any other ideas on how to find the right bait? ~Amy Stephson

“She’s Mean to Me!” The Shattering Conclusion

My two previous posts discussed how to help employees who complain about interpersonal problems with their co-workers, addressing both some general principles and the GROW approach to coaching.  This week, I conclude with a discussion of some of the challenges you are likely to face when coaching employees in this type of situation.

Challenge One:  The employee will want you to solve the problem for them.  The essence of coaching, however, is that the client (or “coachee”) has to own and at least attempt to resolve the problem himself or herself.  Feel free to tell the employee this — most will understand the principle, however reluctantly.  In addition, as noted in Part 2 of this series, when you work with the employee to set goals, be sure that they are something that the employee him or herself can accomplish.

Challenge Two: You will ask the employee a coaching question and get a blank stare in return. There’s an art to asking a good question — check out an earlier post of mine for some tips.  Even the best questions, however, often result in a blank stare, or “I don’t know.”  You’ll be tempted to leap in with  your own hard-earned wisdom. Don’t. Instead, first try to let silence do the work for you.  If the pause gets too long, you can then try to get the employee’s analytical juices going using prompts such as, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” or  “How did you feel when I asked you that question?” 

Challenge Three.  The employee will remain emotional and want to be vindicated.  It’s important to acknowledge an employee’s feelings. At some point, however, you’ll want to tell the employee that he or she needs to approach the problem from a strategic and problem-solving standpoint, not an emotional one.  You can tell the employee that if there is wrongdoing on the part of co-workers, you will address it, but you want to emphasize that often interpersonal problems are a result of differing perceptions and miscommunication, not intentional wrongdoing. 

Challenge Four: The employee continues to use the H-word. By this we mean, of course, the word “harassment.” As in, “He keeps harassing me no matter what I do.”  Here you can try a couple of things.  You can explain that the term “harassment” has a specific legal meaning not applicable to the situation (assuming it’s not) and is not helpful in solving the problem because it is an “emotion” word.  You can also tell the employee that the word “harassment” is vague and he or she needs to describe what’s going on with much more specificity if the problem is going to be effectively addressed.

Challenge Five: The employee tries to avoid agreeing to specific action steps. Here you’ll just have to get pushy and help the employee come up with specific steps that will advance his or her goals and that are within his or her control.  You’ll also want to use the motivational technique that’s part of the GROW method (On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is it you will do this … ?)   

These are just a few of the challenges that come to mind — coaching is not easy. But as I noted in my first post, it’s well worth the investment of time and effort.  Have you had challenging coaching experiences? Do share them!

Happy Holidays to All. We’ll be back after the New Year.  ~Amy Stephson

“She’s Mean to Me!”

I recently taught a class to supervisors on improving employee behaviors and performance through coaching. Part of the class consisted of practice coaching sessions. I was a little surprised at the topic the class suggested for these sessions: coaching  employees who complain that others are mean to them, criticize them, or exclude them from the team.

I shouldn’t have been. Everyone who does HR related work recognizes that American workplaces are not that different from American high schools (junior highs?) in the way many employees interact with each other. There are cliques, popular and unpopular kids, teacher’s pets (or perceived favorites), and so on. These kinds of problems hurt productivity and drive management crazy. They also can lead to bullying and harassment complaints.

So what’s a supervisor or manager to do? First, you want to determine if it’s potentially a harassment complaint, i.e., the co-workers’ behaviors are allegedly motivated the complainant’s race, gender, religion, etc. Do not hesitate to just ask, “Why do you think X is doing that to you? Do you think it’s because of your [protected class status]? What makes you think that?” If it seems like it may be a harassment complaint, follow your policy and procedures.

Second, if you think there is actual bullying going on, you may need to step in and also investigate.  Coaching the target may or may not be an appropriate response. 

If you’re pretty sure it’s not a harassment complaint or real bullying, you can then move into coaching mode. Working with an employee on this type of issue can be very challenging, but it helps to keep a few basic supervisory goals and methods in mind:

  • First, to the extent possible, you want to help the employee solve the problem himself. You can provide coaching in the background, but it’s better to not intervene unless you decide after further discussion and thought that you need to either talk to the other person, facilitate a conversation between the two (or three, four, or more) parties, or both.
  • Second, you want to help the employee see how she may be contributing to the problem. It almost always takes two, and it’s not “blaming the victim” to explore the conversational “dance” that goes on between the complainant and the others and see where she may be affecting the outcome.
  • Third, you want to help the employee see beyond his interpretation of the other person’s behaviors and explore other possibilities. Did the other person really glare at the employee or was she having a attack of heartburn? “It may not be about you at all” is a helpful concept to explore.
  • Finally, you want to work with the employee to come up with an action plan, even if it’s just baby steps,  to build on what you discussed in the first meeting. You also want to schedule another meeting: at least three meetings total is a good goal.

In future columns, I’ll discuss a more specific coaching framework for this type of complaint as well as some of the challenges.  Coaching may seem too time consuming, but when it works, it’s an investment that is well worth the effort.  ~Amy Stephson