3 Management Suggestions For HR (From Someone Who is NOT in HR)

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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.

John Zappe is the editor of TLNT.com and a contributing editor of ERE.net. John was a newspaper reporter and editor until his geek gene lead him to launch his first website in 1994. He developed and managed online newspaper employment sites and sold advertising services to recruiters and employers. Before joining ERE Media in 2006, John was a senior consultant and analyst with Advanced Interactive Media and previously was Vice President of Digital Media for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Besides writing for ERE, John consults with staffing firms and employment agencies, providing content and managing their social media programs. He also works with organizations and businesses to assist with audience development and marketing. In his spare time  he can be found hiking in the California mountains or competing in canine agility and obedience competitions.

You can contact him here.

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1 Comment on “3 Management Suggestions For HR (From Someone Who is NOT in HR)

  1. Great article. I’m glad to see the middle tier of employees finally getting the recognition they deserve.

    I’ve written before on multiple research studies supporting the point that the middle tier (the steady, efficient, but “average”) of employees are the ones that make it possible for the star performers to shine. For example, Hay Group said (early into the economic recovery) “But for most companies, shifting performance in this middle category is what will really make a difference to surviving the present recession and performing in the upturn.”

    Watson Wyatt (now Towers Watson) pointed this out in their 2008/2009 WorkUSA report, encouraging investment in the core, noting that working to increase the productivity of this middle 60% can help improve the productivity of the high performers as well. And Jack Welch, long misunderstood in his approach to differentiation, actually said, “Everyone in the middle 70% needs to be motivated and made to feel as if they truly belong. You do not want to lose the vast majority of your middle 70 – you want to improve them.”

    (all of the research is cited and linked here: http://blog.globoforce.com/2010/05/should-motivation-strategies-be.html

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