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HR Handled Right

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Joe X works in a small financial consulting firm that was founded by Mom and Pop. Over the past five years, he has gradually worked his way up to become second-in-command; in fact, he has developed so close a relationship with Mom and Pop that even the employees forget he’s not their son. As Mom and Pop have gotten closer to retiring, they have begun to take a backseat in the day-to-day operations of their business and have left it up to Joe to keep the business going.

All heck breaks loose when a trusted secretary calls Mom and tells her that Joe has been sexually harassing her for the past six months. An outside investigation, conducted by yours truly, quickly discovers that these allegations are just the tip of the iceberg. As it turns out, Joe has a serious drug problem and has fired employees for refusing to pick up marijuana for him, sold drugs to his employees, and smoked marijuana in his office and during lunch.

Then, there’s Charlie – the CEO of a large retail chain. Charlie’s wife died three years ago and since then, he hasn’t been the same. Always a party-hardier, Charlie has made a complete boob out of himself at the last several company parties.

Senior employees constantly maneuver around him and no one has had the courage to speak to Charlie about his increasing moodiness, tardiness, or the smell of alcohol that is often on his breath. In fact, things only come to a head when several employees witness him drunkenly groping an employee, the victim employee threatens to file a lawsuit, and their outside counsel threatens to fire the company if they fail to take action.

You’re Not the Person I Hired

It’s interesting that both of these scenarios came to a head because of offensive behavior complaints when the underlying problem was substance abuse. Not only does a drug or alcohol problem cloud a person’s judgment, drug users in the workplace are 3.6 times more likely to injure themselves or someone else in a workplace accident; up to 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

One of the sayings I frequently heard from ex-substance abusers during my internship stint on the drug/alcohol ward of a V.A. hospital was this: “You can’t have a real relationship with a substance abuser because s/he is already married – to his or her drug of choice.”

Without question, a person who is dependent on drugs or alcohol is not the same person s/he was before using. In fact, there are often telltale signs of potential substance abuse problems early on – inconsistency, a slowed or erratic work pace, trouble concentrating, increased errors and mistakes. The employee’s personal appearance deteriorates (inappropriate or sloppy dress, blood-shot eyes), he’s less dependable (Monday/Friday absences, missed deadlines), and his judgment and productivity decline. In addition, as the addiction progresses, his interpersonal relationships go down the tube as his fuse shortens and he becomes easily angry/irritable.

Codependent No More

It’s hard to see someone you care about slowly throwing his life away, which is why the number one mistake managers make with regards to a substance-abusing employee is to enable him or her – usually with the best of intentions. In fact, it’s often the best managers who fall into the trap of thinking if they pick up the slack or cover for the employee long enough, s/he will get his or her life back together and everyone will live happily ever after.

I’ve seen managers ignore performance or productivity problems, coworkers cover up for substance-abusing employee, and employees pick up the additional workload created by a substance dependent manager. You probably know someone who’s let personal friendship or loyalty dissuade him or her from taking corrective action. Substance-abuse related or not, at some point we’ve probably all allowed a fear of confrontation to permit us to ignore a problem.

Unfortunately, not only do these “favors” ultimately hurt the receiver, they create legal liability for the employer through 1) an increase in the likelihood the employee will engage in risky or inappropriate behavior; 2) a higher chance the person will be involved in on-the-job accidents; and 3) better odds the person will damage equipment or property. By recognizing and intervening to hold a substance abuser responsible for his/her own behavior, you are helping him/her to take the first step on the road to recovery.

The Bottom Line

Blues singer Billie Holiday once said, “There is no solitary confinement outside of jail.” A drug or alcohol habit not only affects the addicted employee, it can wreak havoc on the work of coworkers and managers who must deal with him. An employer who proactively addresses workplace substance abuse through effective policies, procedures, and program is not only helping prevent an abusive or enabling work environment; s/he may ultimately help the employee escape from the prison of addiction

It’s not often I get to experience the real-world parallel to a study I’d just read, but this weekend was the exception. Here’s what happened: My four kids and I were waiting to get a taxi from the MGM Grand to the Venetian where we were going to see a show. Apparently, there is a limit of five passengers per taxi and so we were at the max. A car pulled up, the doorman opened the door, and we started piling in.

When Customer Service Gets Ugly

However, the taxi driver began shaking his head and telling the doorman that he could not take us because there were kids under age 18 and he did not have enough seatbelts. The doorman reiterated the five passenger limit and indicated that the two largest of us (myself and my 15 year old) would sit up front, allowing the three youngest to sit with seatbelts in the back.

Again, the driver, obviously distressed, told the doorman that he did not want to get a ticket and he was not supposed to transport any child without a seatbelt. (For those of you wondering where my motherly instincts were, they were apparently dulled by fatigue and rationalized away with the logic that traffic was traveling at a snail’s pace and the trip was a short one).

Here’s where it got interesting. The doorman, infuriated that we had already been waiting in line (as were lots of people behind us), not only expressed his disgust at the taxi driver, he told the taxi driver that no passenger would be riding with him from the MGM. When the driver continued to protest, he sneeringly called security over and told the taxi driver that his business was no longer welcome at the MGM. All this while, the doorman would periodically roll his eyes at us and apologize for the apparent idiocy of the reluctant taxi driver.

When we were riding in the next taxi, the first thing my 15 year old son said was, “What a Jerk!” He wasn’t referring to the recently dismissed cabbie, but to the doorman who had so zealously serviced us – and mistreated the taxi driver.

Customers Don’t Appreciate Misbehavior

While I’m sure the taxi driver would have been astounded at the negative impression his actions created, authors of a recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research wouldn’t be. After conducting several studies of employee-employee incivility, USC authors Christine Porath, Debbie MacInnis and Valerie Folkes concluded a) consumers often witnesses employees being rude to one another and b) when they do, it creates a negative impression of the entire company even when the incivil employee is trying to help the customer resolve a service problem.

In a work environment, discussions about inappropriate behavior most often center on harassment/discrimination and sorting out (and avoiding) what words and actions can lead to lawsuits. These studies (and my own experience) suggest that how employees treat each other – and are treated by their managers – can be as much a customer service issue as employment liability concern – and that savvy employers find ways to reinforce respectful treatment in a variety of training opportunities and formats.

This weekend, my six-year-old finally asked me the dreaded question, “Mom, is there really an Easter bunny?”

There I was, stuck on the horns of a dilemma. To be honest, I’d never felt completely comfortable misleading my son, yet it was wonderful to see him hugging the man-disguised-as-the-Easter-bunny at egg hunts and to strategize about ways to catch him delivering the basket. I loved revisiting how magical the world appeared when I thought the Easter bunny was real. So, until now, I’d justified trading a little deception for some short-lived magic.

Performance Counseling is Not for Wimps

If coming clean about the Easter bunny can cause a grown woman to break into a sweat, imagine the anxiety managers often feel about discussing poor performance. Let’s face it; sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth, especially when it’s negative and most especially when you actually like the person you need to give negative feedback to. This is one reason why incompetent or ill-equipped employees don’t get fired.

Managers Held Hostage

Part of the problem is that some managers believe they have two options; a) ignore the problem and spare the employee’s feelings (and their own), or b) devastate the employee (and stress themselves out) by lowering the boom. Few of us want to hurt the feelings of people we like, which is why option A is so seductive.

However, there’s also option C. Rather than let ourselves be held hostage by our empathy, why not use it as the foundation for a frank discussion? “Susan, I really like you and very much want for you to succeed. Here are the barriers I see standing in your way . . . How can I help you get your performance up to par?”

Communicating your genuine liking for the employee is a great way to assure the employee that both of you are on the same team and still get the reality of his/her performance across. And, should the employee fail to improve, it’s less likely that s/he will take a termination personally.

The Easter Bunny Revisited

Back to the Easter Bunny. Well, after sitting quietly for about 30 seconds after her question, I gave him a soul-searching look and said, “Would you really want to know?”

She was silent for a minute and then, looking at me squarely in the eyes, said, “Yes, I do. I kind of know already, mom; I just want to hear it from you.” So, I fessed up, feeling a little sad and a little relieved. And, she looked just as I’d imagined she would – a little sad and a little older.

Telling the truth can be difficult but it does have its rewards. Ideally, the primary objective of a performance improvement / disciplinary conversation is to gain the employee’s agreement to change behavior and return to fully acceptable performance. Just as telling your child a difficult truth helps build a foundation of trust and credibility. Even when the parent isn’t ready to let the Easter Bunny go.

Here I was; nineteen and head over heels in love with a guy I secretly believed was better looking and smarter than I was. The last thing I wanted to do was rock the boat in our relationship. So, for months, I bit my tongue when I was annoyed by things that he did (was late, “teased” a little too much, changed plans at the last minute).

Of course, this is – and was – a recipe for disaster. Sooner or later, there would be a straw that would break my camel’s back and out it would come – every frustration, irritation and annoyance that I had held in. Temporarily, I would feel such relief, as if I were purging myself of all the pent-up emotion that had been weighing me down. Unfortunately, the fall-out from this barrage would confirm my worst fears; 1) that standing up for myself might do irreparable damage to my relationship and 2) that I would wind up apologizing – and “being wrong” – for taking up for myself.

Don’t Sabotage Yourself

If you’re uncomfortable with conflict, as many of us are, it can be hard to muster the courage to tackle a difficult topic. This can result in a vicious cycle; our discomfort leads us to communicate in a way that guarantees we’ll fail, confirming our worst fears about interpersonal conflict. We’ll talk about ways to resolve an argument in future posts; here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at ways to guarantee you won’t.

  • Hit “below the belt.” Make sure you attack areas of personal sensitivity, like the person’s physical appearance, personality, character, or trustworthiness.
  • Generalize. Use words like “never” or “always.” Not only will it guarantee that your partner-in-argument will become defensive, it will give him or her loophole. After all, it’s rare that a person never or always does something.
  • Stockpile. Why settle for a battle when you can start a war? The next time you’re in an argument, bring up every grievance and hurt feeling in the history of your relationship.
  • Clam up. Who doesn’t love the silent treatment? Start it when the other person is most vulnerable, so wait until the other person is genuinely expressing his or her distress.
  • Insist that “most people” would also see things your way. In one-on-one disagreement, it’s always useful to find ways to gang up on the other person. One way is to insist that any reasonable/sane/smart (you fill in the blank) person would agree with you.
  • Go the distance. Remember; there’s no such thing as “pick your battles.” Be prepared to argue every point in every disagreement until you’ve beaten the other person down. And never compromise.
  • Yell. You know if you say it loud enough, you’re guaranteed to get the other person to see the light. Plus, it gets him or her to shut up.
  • Assume the worst. Yeah, your manager said she gave you a “3” out of 5 on your performance evaluation because you’ve been slacking off lately, but you know it’s because she’s jealous of your superior intelligence and wants to knock you down a peg or two. Always assume the other person has an ulterior motive, especially when s/he tells you something you don’t like.
  • Find common ground and use it to show how superior you are. “I’m stressed too, but I still make sure I exercise.” “I also have a nanny and understand she can get sick. That’s why I made sure I have a backup daycare.” Yes, these may be good solutions for this person going forward, but they’re not going to be helpful in the heat of an argument.

The Bottom Line

English novelist Joseph Conrad said, “He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.” And , all too often, the wrong words carry more weight than the truth.

The coworker who constantly interrupts you when you’re talking. The team member who responds “when I get around to it” when you asked for an estimated date of completion. The work colleague who attempts to undermine you by withholding critical information that you need to get your assignment done.

Many employees cite dealing with difficult coworkers as the most stressful aspect of their job. If you’re in that boat, here are some guidelines that can help you resolve your workplace conflict – or let you know it’s time to go up the chain of command.

  • Remain calm. We humans are emotional tuning forks; we tune into the emotions of those around us and others do the same. Thus, if we stay calm in the face of conflict, it will be more likely that others will get a handle on their emotions and consider your viewpoint.
  • Ask questions: In the early stages of a conflict the most powerful tool to resolve it is simple: Ask! If somebody has done something that made you angry, if you don’t understand somebody’s viewpoint, if you don’t understand their actions – ask! Sometimes there’s a perfectly good reason why that person does what he does. Even if the conflict has been going on for a while, the best way to resolve a conflict (and show you are truly seeking peace) is to give the other person a chance to talk first.
  • Be specific about what is bothering you. Vague complaints are hard to work on; how does someone change a “bad attitude” or “lack of focus?” State the problem clearly; “when you talk in meetings before I am finished, I am distracted and I can’t listen to you properly when I am distracted. I would like you to wait until I am finished before you make your comments.”
  • Deal with only one issue at a time. Don’t introduce other topics until each is fully discussed. This avoids the “kitchen sink” effect where people throw in all their complaints while not allowing anything to be resolved.
  • Don’t sabotage yourself: While no strategy guarantees that your conflict will be resolved, losing your temper, calling the other person names, or rolling your eyes when your coworker is speaking pretty much guarantee that it won’t be. If you emotions are getting the better of you, call a time out and pick up the conversation later.
  • Propose solutions: Propose specific solutions, and invite the other person to propose solutions, too. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each proposal, and be prepared for some compromise.
  • Know when to call in reinforcements: If you’ve done all the above, and the coworker continues to wreak havoc, you may need to escalate the situation. Ideally, you have a boss who is an effective conflict resolver and will work to resolve the situation without taking sides. Approach the conflict as a productivity issue, not an interpersonal dilemma, and be prepared to spell out how the conflict is adversely impacting your productivity and progress on projects.
  • Listen for facts and feelings. Try to determine what the other person is feeling by paying attention to his/her non-verbal messages. Check it out with the other person: “You sound angry. Is it because of something I said?” Repeat back to the person what you think he/she said. This will prevent misunderstandings and will ensure that you are both clear about the issues.

The Chinese symbol for the word “conflict” is comprised of the characters for danger and opportunity, reflecting conflict’s dual ability to hurt relationships or, if handled bravely, deepen it. Handled poorly, conflict between two coworkers can wreak havoc on a team and infect the entire department. Handled right, it can spark a greater understanding of how to meet the needs and wants of the people around us – and our own.