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HR Handled Right

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We’ve all worked with someone who seems hell-bent on destroying his career or someone else’s. Perhaps it’s the boss who is so narcissistic that she is unable to tolerate any hint of constructive criticism or negative feedback (and will hold a grudge if you’re brave enough to give it). It could be the employee who cannot see that his pervasive suspiciousness and distrust of others actually causes the hostile reactions he already expects from others. Or, it might be the subordinate who is unable to make even the simplest decision without the constant reassurance and input from others.

A personality disorder lies at the extreme end of the behavior continuum. No matter how maladaptive the thought, feelings and behaviors, the sufferer clings to them. This is true no how much external pressure there is to change, no matter how many problems the behavior creates. It’s as if the person is stuck in a rigid, ineffective way of relating to others and, instead of realizing the costs associated with it, blames others for the outcome.

Personality Problems and How They Grow

We don’t really know what causes personality disorders. We know they start to develop early (and are usually in place by late adolescence or early adulthood) and are probably a combination of some in-born behavioral dispositions in combination with stressful environmental circumstances. What we do know is that they develop independent of a person’s intellectual level (a highly intelligent person can have a severe personality problem) and are accompanied by a lack of insight.

Recognizing a Personality Disorder

I’m not a particular fan of psychiatric diagnoses unless there are very specific reasons (treatment recommendations, insurance reimbursement) for giving one. Certainly there’s never a need for us to diagnose a work colleague.

However, because of the interpersonal problems that can arise with these disorders, it can be useful to be aware of why a seemingly intelligent coworker or boss continues to act in a seemingly maladaptive fashion over and over again. And, of course, we must know how we can minimize the impact of our own career, especially if the problematic work colleague is our boss.

We’ll be taking a look at specific personality disorders and how to deal with them, but for now, here’s the take away:

  • A person with a personality disorder cannot, or will not, modify his or her behavior based on your feedback. As such, let go of any thoughts you may have of changing this particular person. You must focus on what you need to do to take care of yourself.
  • A person with a personality disorder is not a happy person. This is also not a person who is trying to torture you deliberately; s/he is trying to survive in the best way s/he has learned to do so.
  • Do not expect this person to operate by the same rules you do. This means that you must be prepared to set boundaries, back up communication with documentation, and, if necessary, find ways to remove yourself from the situation.
  • Employees with personality disorders always have positive personality traits and characteristics — otherwise, they would not have been hired in the first place — but the maladaptive and inflexible patterns can emerge under stress. As such, this is a time to especially be on guard.

The Bottom Line

We all know that doing the same thing over and over will get the same result. For some people, though, that “same thing” is all they know how to do. And, if you’re not careful, they’ll blame you for the result.


Managers often fail to utilize one of their best weapons against discipline-related lawsuits – the manager’s unofficial employee file. There are many reasons this happens – the matter seems trivial, the conversation was informal, or the manager is busy. Regardless, a failure to create a paper trail of significant interactions with an employee can come back to haunt us, particularly when it’s time to lower the boom on an unproductive or insubordinate employee.

The Employee File

Employee files should be kept on everyone a manager manages. This file should be kept in a locked cabinet in a supervisor’s office; if a manager uses a computer to type his/her notes, they should not be on a shared drive. These notes are for the supervisor’s eyes only.

These employee files are extremely beneficial for keeping information chronologically up to date. When counseling is necessary, or performance appraisals or due, we’ll have information at our fingertips and need not rely on our past memory. This can also help us avoid the recency effect, i.e., the tendency to rely only on the most recent information when giving a performance review.

How to Document a Conversation

Virtually all managers give their employees oral notice about poor performance or minor misconduct. This notice can range from correcting an employee’s performance to noting an employee was tardy to verbally “warning” an employee that certain conduct is inappropriate and will not be tolerated. These warnings, given contemporaneously can be very effective in showing performance problems because of their immediacy. In fact, in cases where a manager contends that an employee had “some type of performance problem almost every day,” documentation of exactly these kinds of problems can be the most useful evidence.

Effective managers use different formats when taking notes for their employee file. In addition to documenting specific conversations, some managers keep lists of critical incidents (good and bad) that happen – accomplishments and contributions, problem areas and errors, and strengths and weaknesses. It can also be useful to keep track of an employee’s stated goals, ambitions and aspirations.

Such documentation should:

  1. Be as close in timing to the incident as possible. Ideally conversations should be documented on the same day they occur.
  2. Create a context for your conversation. Include the date of the conversation, the manager’s name and title and the employee’s name and title.
  1. Stick to the facts. Write down exactly what you said and exactly what the employee said.
  2. Include the “take away.” State the action plan you told the employee, being clear about the expectations you set for the employee to follow.
  3. If the conversation is a verbal warning, document this. In particular, be sure that you make notes of conversations even when it involves a meeting in which you presented the employee with a written disciplinary document or action plan. The document you gave the employee does not reflect the entire conversation about the issues discussed.

Too Much of a Good Thing

While most managers err on the side of neglect when it comes to documentation, it is possible to err on the side of overkill. Here are three examples:

1. Focusing only on the negative. Managers are often taught that documentation is for problems and, as such, fail to keep track of the positive. Not only can this skew an employee’s performance appraisal, juries don’t like to think that a manager is gunning for an employee.

2. Exaggerating. In an effort to highlight their concerns, managers often use dramatic words such as “always” and “never,” when documenting performance concerns. However, in reality, these can undermine your credibility (the employee is sure to point out the one time s/he was on time or exceeded expectations) and hurt you in court. It’s much more effective to stick to the facts to get your point across (Joe was late by at least 15 minutes on 13 out of the past 14 work days).

3. Over-documenting. A manager who documents everything may be perceived as harassing an employee through micro-management. While this isn’t against the law, anyone reviewing a file that apparently documents every insignificant detail is more likely to conclude that the organization is not a nice place to work or that the documenter has a clear agenda. This is especially true when a manager has over-documented one employee’s performance, but has provided relatively little documentation regarding other employees.

The Bottom Line

HR managers can play a critical role in helping their managers develop a documentation system that includes informal conversations, contributions and problems. Obviously, no manager should document every conversation with an employee. But where a problem exists that would justify discipline if it was recurring, some type of written documentation is needed.

Your most gregarious employee suddenly becomes withdrawn and aloof. Your previously decisive teamleader can’t seem to make the simplest decision. Your easygoing coworker starts arguing with coworkers and takes offense at the drop of a hat. Your most dependable employee shows up late, calls in sick, and doesn’t finish projects. These are some of the symptoms of depression in the workplace.

So what’s a manager to do? On one hand, production must continue, yet the compassionate manager should also be concerned for the well-being of the employee. Performance issues have to be dealt with and yet the employee’s previously stellar record – or obvious emotional pain – tempts the manager to just pick up the slack until the employee gets back on his or her feet.

The scenario of the depressed employee often presents a dilemma for his/her manager. So why does the manager have to deal with it? The employee is a grown-up; why doesn’t s/he come to the manager first?

Note to Manager: Don’t Wait for Me to Come to You

The odds are, s/he won’t. Most depressed employees would rather eat dirt than admit to their managers that they’re depressed. Part of this is because of the shame many depression sufferers feel about what they feel is their “weakness.” However, a large part of their silence is due to the stigma many people continue to experience around mental illness.

For example, in an online survey of 1,129 workers conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, a high percentage believed that seeking help for particular psychological problems – such as drug addiction (76%), alcoholism (73%) and depression (62%) – would not be as accepted. As I mentioned in another article I wrote, for every story I’ve heard about a supportive manager or caring HR professional, I’ve heard ten from employees who felt their disclosure led to being teased, overly scrutinized, or discriminated against.

The First Step: Recognizing how Depression Impacts Work

Most managers have some employees they’d like to clone and some they’d like to clobber. And, certainly, a slacker can become depressed just as a superstar can. What’s noticeable about depression, though, is the change in the employee. The good employee’s performance declines while the marginal employee gets worse.
Here’s what that change in performance may look like:

  • Unfinished projects
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased errors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in work or socializing with colleagues
  • Seems tired/fatigued

What to Say to a Depressed Employee

Managers are not there to talk about medical problems, counsel, or diagnose. They are there to talk about work performance and behavior. They are also there to care about their employees’ wellbeing. When talking to a potentially depressed employee, here are some ways to do both:

  1. 1. Start with your concern for the employee. “Sandy, I’m concerned about you.”
    2. Focus your comments on observable behaviors. “You’ve been late to work four times in the past two weeks and your reports have had twice as many errors.”
    3. Acknowledge the change. “This isn’t like you. You’re normally the first in to work and the last person in the department to make mistakes.”
    4. Offer them an olive branch. “I don’t know if things in your personal life are affecting you, but if they are we have a confidential employee assistance plan that might be able to help.”
    5. Be prepared to set limits. For instance, if the employee mentions marital discord, problems with a child, financial problems, and so forth, the manager should be empathic but should limit the conversation.
    6. Refer to an E.A.P. Offer the employee the telephone number for the employee assistance program or suggest that it would serve the employee well to consider outside professional counseling through health care benefits, a community clinic, an employee assistance plan, or even through pastoral counseling.
    7. Reinforce your concern. ” I’m very invested in helping you get back on track.”
    8. Reinforce the need to improve performance. “However, whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.”

The Bottom Line

Clinical depression has been described as a black dog, a suffocating blanket, and an endless, dark hole. Untreated, it can sap the energy and motivation out of the most productive employee. With the right help, it can be managed, overcome, or worked around. In fact, for some people, coping with depression has given them some gifts that might now have otherwise received – such as a greater perspective and empathy for others. At least, that’s what one lifelong depression sufferer you may know said – Abraham Lincoln.


There’s an office gossip in every company. The only employee who thinks gardening means tending the office grapevine. The person who knows so much you’d swear s/he is bugging your office, and filling in the blanks with National Inquirer headlines.

Unquestionably, office gossip can be a thorn in management’s side. Chronic gossip mongers can undermine morale, weaken authority, and create unnecessary stress and tension. If an employee is spreading malicious or consistently false rumors, his or her behavior needs to be dealt with just like any other company problem. However, don’t think sitting an employee down and reading him or her the “riot act” will put an end to the office grapevine.

Let’s face it, people are going to talk. According to Video Arts, seventy-five percent of employees first hear about critical job-related matters through the office grapevine. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, silence isn’t always golden when it comes to office rumors. The grapevine can be a valuable way to learn about your employee. Even when the content is false, as our lead-in quote points out, they often reflect an employee’s fears and concerns. Rather than putting your energy into squelching office rumors, your time might be better spent steering the flow of information in your favor. Here are four strategies that will help:

1. Listen to what is said without losing your temper. Don’t go on a witch-hunt for the source of the information; instead, correct false rumors as quickly as possible.

2. Provide as much accurate information into the office as is feasible. Use informal (spontaneous meetings, lunches) as well as formal (memos, bulletin boards) means of communication, but communicate critical information in person if at all possible.

3. Be accessible. Let employees know they have a place to go with concerns and questions, so they won’t have to turn to the company grapevine for information.

4. If you have a chronic gossiper, you need to confront him or her directly; let him or her know the rumors have to stop or s/he will be disciplined. Give the employee positive, constructive alternatives to choose instead of the gossip. After all, people who notice negatives can often help others identify what needs fixing so that they or their operations can be stronger. Show him/her a reasonable, professional method for approaching the person who has the “observed weakness.”

British author Paul Scott said, “Ah well, the truth is always one thing, but it’s the other thing, the gossip, that counts. It shows where people’s heart lies.” If gossip is widespread and rampant, chances are your employees either don’t know enough about what’s going on — or they’re afraid to speak up about it. So, while you don’t have control over what people say, you have more control than you think over how tempted they are to say it.


At first glance, having an open door policy is a no-brainer. Give employees easy access to a variety of listeners, handle grievances informally, and everyone will be happy. Unfortunately, organizational research, not to mention my own consulting experience, tells a different story. In fact, in some situations, open-door policies may cause what they are designed to prevent – perceptions of injustice and employee frustration.

Open Door Policies

Open-door policies typically draw on supervisory procedures whereby employees complain first to their immediate supervisors, they proceed up one or two hierarchical steps to resolve complaints. Unlike more formal grievance procedures, open door policies allow employees to go above their immediate supervisor and take as many steps as are necessary (in some cases up to CEOs) to resolve complaints. In addition, open door policies allow for more impromptu discussions and flexible time limits.

The Booby Trap Behind the Door

Unfortunately, in reality, open door policies often fail. In fact, one out of three employees who use them report feeling cynical or disillusioned about their organizations’ open-door policies, frequently observing that they were or are available “in theory but not in practice.”

More often than not, the employee is subjected to the deaf-ear syndrome, i.e., the lack of inaction that results when an employee steps through a manager’s door to complain. Preliminary research suggests that this deaf-ear syndrome results in substantial costs from litigation, decreased productivity, increased turnover and injustice perceptions.

Even when managers listen, they don’t always respond appropriately. Moreover, interpersonal skills play a critical role in informal systems because poorly specified protocols and low standardization allow individual idiosyncrasies in voice managers’ complaint– handling styles.For example, managers who deny or minimize an employee’s complaint, who retaliates against an employee who speaks out, or who protects favored employees regardless of the circumstances are turning what could be a positive chance to resolve a problem into something bigger.

When You Open the Door, You Raise the Bar

The mere presence of an open door policy increases employee expectations of remedial action. And, when it comes to handling sensitive issues, employees have high expectations. This is especially true when it comes to their managers’ communication skills.

Employees consistently say that safety (protection from retribution) and credibility (objectivity, neutrality) are the most important determinants of whether or not they are satisfied with how a complaint is handled. In fact, I think most employees would much rather deal with a complex grievance procedure, or one that took longer to get resolved, than deal with a simple systems that, despite quicker responses, may seem biased or unsafe.

In addition, during open-door exchanges, they want to feel heard, understood, and valued. They also want their managers to demonstrate their understanding through remedial action that could include ongoing monitoring of the situation, coaching through a problematic situation, or at least, providing an account to justify why remedial action would not be taken.

In fact, most employees believe effectively handled complaint procedures are part of their psychological contract with organizations. When these implicit promises to take complaints seriously are broken, bad feelings develop.

The Bottom Line

Many managers view complaints as personal affronts and, as a result, become defensive or deny the complaint’s legitimacy. Employers are rolling the dice when they place grievance procedures on managers who haven’t been trained in how to demonstrate empathy, actively listen, probe intelligently, and handle their own and others’ emotions effectively.

Employers need to take a realistic look at their open door policy and decide if they’re willing to invest in the time and effort to teach their managers how to do it right, or if they need to revert back to a more formal, restricted complaint procedure. The promise of improved morale and reduced litigation from informal voice systems will dissolve if these systems are, in practice, poorly designed or mismanaged. In other words, invest in your open door policy or get rid of it.

Dear Employees,

At our company, we like to pretend that we have a zero tolerance for offensive behavior. This is to make our legal and HR department happy. In reality, we don’t care what you do as long as you’re getting your job done and making us a profit.

This is especially true of our managers. Look, your manager got promoted because she was better than you. As such, s/he gets special treatment and will not be held to the same behavior standard that you will. So don’t even think that, just because your manager gets away with it, you will.

And, another thing. Your manager was hired to make money. S/he does not like taking time out of his or her valuable day to listen to a bunch of whining about something someone else said or did. So don’t be surprised if he or she is annoyed when you make a complaint. And don’t be surprised if he or she isn’t quite as friendly afterward; after all, you’ve blown the whistle on somebody that you work with. That’s not part of the “good employee” code.

The Role of Managers in Offensive Employee Behavior

Any lawyer would go screaming into the street at the thought of his or her corporate client adopting this kind of offensive behavior policy. So would HR. And yet, this “policy” is communicated by the actions and attitudes of managers who either participate in, or turn a blind eye, to dishonest, ethical or illegal behavior.

Managers commit more fraud, steal more money, and does so in larger amounts than rank-and-file employees ever did, yet they often have exempt status when it comes to accountability for their behavior. In addition, their attitudes and practices establish the caliber of management oversight. When managers are perceived as uncaring or unconcerned about abusive behavior, the blind eye is perceived as an approving eye.

The Bottom Line

What management does is much more important than what management says. Managers who stand by, or participate, in offensive behavior significantly infleunce the level of management or subordinate tacit or direct involvemnet in abusive behavior, the legnth of time this behavior goes on, and why employees who have knowledge or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing do not expose it.

When Rich’s dad was sober, he was attentive and loving, someone Rich could confide in. But when he drank, he became angry dad, a dad who would throw Rich’s confidences back in his face. “No wonder you were the last one picked for the dodge ball game,” he slurs after Rich accidentally knocks over his dad’s briefcase. “You’re so damn clumsy.”

Lessons learned. Never show your vulnerabilities. Don’t trust anyone because, sooner or later, you’ll be sorry.

Ms. Griggs, a burned out third grade teacher, angrily marches back into her noisy class after a brief visit to the restroom. “Who was talking?” she demands. Rich and a few of his honest classmates stand up while others, including his also-talking best friend, point fingers at their classmates. The honest few get paddled.

Lesson learned: Honesty is for suckers. Point fingers if you have to, but don’t admit blame.

Today, Rich is a manager who goes on the defensive at the slightest hint of less-than-glowing feedback. If a subordinate expresses a different opinion or questions a task, he refuses to even consider the possibility that their own way of looking at things might be incomplete. As a result, problems in his department often go unaddressed and his employees feel unheard and unappreciated.

Why is she so defensive?

Most of us have had a conversation that started off innocently enough but ended in the heat of battle. We remind our spouse that it’s garbage day and he “jokingly” tells us to quit nagging. We think: What? Is he calling me a nag? Perhaps I need to set the record straight by reacquainting him with the 23 times he’s forgotten to take out the garbage in the past six months.

Notice that these thoughts no longer have to do with taking the garbage out; they are focused on protecting our self-image and defending our self-esteem. The ante has been upped because our spouse’s remark – no matter how “joking” – feels like a personal attack. Whenever people feel unsafe in a conversation they either fight (e.g. controlling, labeling, sarcasm, anger) or flee (e.g. silence, avoiding). Effective communication stops and the discussion shifts away from the issue toward the protection of the self.

What’s Wrong with Rich?

People like Rich have learned to never feel safe. They are always on the lookout for an emotional attack. However, while other people get the brunt of Rich’s defensiveness, what Rich is really defending himself against is his own fear.

People don’t get defensive unless they believe that have something to defend. Chronic defensiveness is almost always based on a fear not only of someone else discovering the insignificant, incompetent or unlikable person the defender believes s/he is hiding, but being forced to re-experience the painful insecurities that drive the defensive behavior. How much better to shut down the “opposition” that be forced to admit our worst fears about ourselves might be true!

In my next blog, we’ll take a look at how to talk to a highly defensive manager, coworker or employee. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.