Last week’s TLNT post by my colleague Lance Haun on how to handle an employee in a funk brought back all sorts of memories of the curious conversations I had with staffers over the years.
None of these curious conversations (I’m choosing my words very carefully here) were about their performance. In fact, most of them were excellent performers — the kind of people you can count on to deliver.
One conversation I’ll always remember was over hygiene. A delegation of co-workers appealed to me to ask this person to shower. Evidently, he had neither bathed nor changed his clothes in a while. I suppose it’s almost a cliché to explain he worked in IT. Periodically, we would find him sleeping under his desk.
Bringing in HR usually raises the stakes
Fortunately, the conversation went well and went quickly, as the air in my office was quickly degraded by his presence.
In another instance, I was compelled to discuss the difference between business casual and Sunset Strip nightclub fashion with a young associate. That conversation went less well, as the company handbook’s only reference to dress was that it “present a professional appearance.”
My reason for mentioning these two episodes, as instructive as they now appear in hindsight to have been in furthering my supervisorial skills, is that in neither case did I involve HR. Intentionally, I avoided involving human resources.
The reason is simple: To have brought in HR would have raised the stakes. There would have been a record. I would have been obliged to write a memo to the file, as would the HR representative, and the employee would have been tagged.
As their supervisor, I was the one who had the relationship with them. HR was visible mostly during open enrollment and the annual United Way drive. Inviting HR’s help, or, worse, sending the employee to HR, is the adult equivalent of the Principal’s Office. Hearing from the Principal, or being called to the office, was never a good thing.
With all due respect, my tips are a bit different than those Lance detailed. And I’ve only got three suggestions for HR. I’m not writing, as he did, specifically about dealing with an employee in a funk, but my suggestions cover that as well as they do all the other situations supervisors encounter,
1. HR should engage in good times, not just bad
So many workers see HR only in disciplinary conversations that it’s no surprise the department has the aura of the Principal’s Office. The perfunctory anniversary card from HR, or the Employee of the Month handshake do nothing to assuage that image. If HR occasionally strolled the shop floor (I use the term loosely, to mean any workplace), stopping to chat about a new company initiative, or the ventilation or whatever, it would help to remove some of the “uh-oh” that accompanies an HR sighting.
Even more effective would be to meet with high achievers informally to get their insight on company activities or see how they do what they do that could get communicated to managers.
2. Teach supervisors how to converse with their staffs
Management by walking around used to be the shiny new object for CEOs. There were all sorts of workshops and seminars on how to do it. Needless to say, few actually did.
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On the other hand, direct supervisors were expected to do this, though it wasn’t called that, and they almost certainly never got sent to workshops to learn the “technique.” Yet these are the very people for whom it would have most valuable.
What I witnessed back in my corporate days, was how few managers talked with their team one-on-one. The morning stand-ups in sales “atta-boyed” the previous days top sellers. Missing, though, was any sort of follow-up with them. I’m sure it happened, but I never actually saw any of the directors or, for that matter, managers wandering the office. Had they, no doubt the staff would have been whispering about what was going on.
Yet, getting to know your people, their interests, their ambitions, their hopes, and, yes, getting to know about their other life has a direct effect on how you manage and how they respond.
HR might have a hard time taking the lead here, simply because the fear of legal consequences from unstructured conversation seems to be genetically imprinted. I recall mentioning once in a management training class that I’d discussed chairs with a worker. The rep immediately wanted to know how the issue came up, what was said, and so on, warning that OSHA could show up at any moment.
3. Respect the average worker
Nobody wants to be average, yet statistically, the world is dominated by the average. Not by a little, but by a huge majority. That bulge in the bell curve is where most of us dwell. Look at any team, any company, any class and you find a few outstanding performers, a few dunces, and a great middle. That middle is the people who keep the engines of industry going.
They aren’t going to get the big bonus or the big raise; the supply of average is large enough to keep their price and perks in check. But they deserve to be recognized and respected for the day-to-day work they do. How? By seeking them out on those management perambulations. By sending them a note of appreciation. By asking them to serve on one or another of the “special” committees. By just saying “thank you” occasionally.
When the day comes and you need the help of the great middle – and that day will come, it always does – you’ll be surprised how the whole can suddenly become greater than the sum of the parts — if they feel and believe they are respected.