Is HR Two-Faced? You Betcha.

HR has two faces.  This is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s by design.  To employees, we are the face of management.  To management, we are the face of employees.  This is what makes our job so darn hard.

Employees need us to be their advocate to management.  We beg, borrow, and steal for increased benefits, argue that people should be disciplined, we ask for more training and opportunity for employees, we pass tissues when someone is upset, we help get them leave when a grandma is sick or a baby is on the way, etc.

Management expects us to keep them safe.  We create policies that govern employee behavior, we find people so the widgets get made, we draft severance agreements when a manager screws up, we coach managers how to have tough conversations, we try to reduce liability by implementing safety programs, etc.

Some of us really like one side over the other, but both are expected and important.  Problems arise when we show the wrong face.  When we brag to employees just how hard we’ve been working on their behalf, management hears of it and loses trust in us.  When we gossip with employees about management strategy, employees learn they can’t trust us either.  When we stop advocating for employees with management, the employees know we’ve stopped.  Then, they know they can’t come to us with problems – we’ll just can’t be bothered by them.

These two faces are really hard to maintain.  We can’t have deep friendships with the people we work with for fear of the time when we have a tough conversation with our friend that ends in her termination. But we want to know enough about people so they feel comfortable coming to us with concerns even if we don’t partake in the party after the company party.  This professional distance is important for us to do our jobs, so we’re trusted enough to do our jobs.

Sometimes, we can’t show either face until we have facts.  When we hear about harassment is one of those times.  We are empathetic and appreciative to the person who brought us the complaint, but we can’t make admissions like “I’m so sorry” or “We’ll make this right.”  This could show the employee that we’re on her side, undermining our investigation.  OR – perhaps more destructively – we show the employee our management face that’s cold and “just the fact’s ma’am” ensuring that no employee ever tells us about harassment again because we appeared to immediately take the side of the harasser.  Once we have completed the investigation, we advocate to management about what should be done, even if it’s nothing.  When we advocate for the ultimate penalty (termination), we put our credibility and relationship with management on the line.  Then, if we lose, we have to make tough decisions for ourselves.

We don’t always win.  We advocate and lose on both sides, employees and management.  But even when we lose, our job is to build relationships strong enough to get past the loss so we can be ready for the next round. OR, if this loss affects our integrity, we have even tougher decisions to make.  We must think about the possibility of making that decision someday.  It takes guts.

We may have two faces, two jobs that sometimes conflict, but that’s the great thing of HR.  We get to do both.

 

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Tough Conversations

Question:  What do I do if during a conversation about poor performance the employee starts injecting that she’s being attacked or has been harassed?

A tough conversation is exactly that – tough.  For a lot of managers, tough conversations include performance discussions.  A March 2016 Harvard Business Review article explained that two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Two-thirds!  This means a couple of things:  (1) managers don’t know how to have tough conversations; and (2) managers are not prepared to have tough conversations.  HR can help with this!

It is a rare organization that does a great job training managers on how to manage.  Most don’t have the time or resources to devote to some of the “softer” skills about how to communicate with employees.  So, we send managers out into our organizations to fend for themselves, explain they should treat employees how they want to be treated, buy them a book on leadership, and hope for the best.  While I wish managers knew more, here’s what I’d like them to know about tough conversations:

Plan.  Prepare a script.  I recommend you draft an email with some bullet points or full script of what you need to convey to the employee.  If you don’t plan, it’s possible that the conversation will wander and you may miss the clear messaging you need to convey.

Consult.  Consult with HR, another manager, and/or your manager.  Ask them for feedback that you can use to improve your messaging or alter your wording to make the message even more clear or less emotional or harsh.

Take a beat.  Yes, performance should be addressed as soon as possible, but a discussion about performance should not happen in the heat of the moment or in anger.  Take a beat to breathe, plan, and consult.  It’s okay and even preferred where the manager’s own emotion could hinder the discussion.  Just don’t let the beat last longer than one business day.

Schedule.  This is a short, in-person meeting – usually less than 15 minutes.  There should not be a long list of things you need to cover.  Bogging it down with other subjects reduces the importance of the poor performance part of the discussion, so performance should be the only topic of the conversation from the manager’s perspective.  Plus, if you add other topics, the employee may not remember them.

Anticipate.  Usually, a manager knows if an employee will cry, become defensive, and/or angry.  Ponder in your planning what could happen.  Have tissues ready, let HR know you’re having the conversation, or plan to have someone with you if you have concerns about the employee’s reaction.  Select this person carefully – s/he should not be a co-worker of the employee.

Prepare for surprise.  Sometimes, a manager won’t be able to anticipate how the employee react.  In the question above, if the employee starts lodging complaints, the manager needs to know how to refocus the discussion.  Managers will need to hear a complaint, but then remind the employee that she’s there to talk about performance.  Managers should report the complaint immediately after the meeting so HR or management can take action.

Document.  Use your bullet points or script to recap with additions of how the meeting actually went.  The employee does not have to sign off on the documentation but should know of the document’s existence.

I often joke that managers have the word “manage” in their job title, so they’ve got to actually manage.  Most managers are great at saying “you’re doing great,” but it is those conversations where they have to confront an employee about poor performance or misconduct that trips them up.  For HR, this means we coach managers through these tough conversations.  Use these tips and reach out when you need help.

 

 

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What Do We Owe Each Other?

While I have been safely ensconced in #SHRM18, I haven’t been able to read the news as much as I’d like.  When I finally looked at my twitter feed devoted to news, I became angry, sad, frustrated, and a whole other host of emotions.  So as midnight approaches, here are some things I hope all of my HR friends take from this fantabulous conference to put into their worlds:

Compassion.  Oscar Munoz explained why caring comes immediately after safety at United.  Caring means holding a door open for a family who just landed a half a terminal away and who are running to catch the plane to see a sick grandma.  While a policy may say one thing, caring about the people we serve (and for those of us in HR, that includes our employees and candidates) sometimes says something different.  If our employees are empowered with compassion, they will do the right thing for our customers, clients, and the greater world.

Compassion.  While he may not have said it in quite this way, Tim Sackett talked about how CEOs want to be able to personalize our HR plans because our people are individuals who want personalization.  Personalization means we have to know, acknowledge, and understand the needs of candidates and employees.  We can’t personalize unless we are compassionate with the people we help every day.

Compassion.  In discussing inclusion, Joe Gerstandt asked us to imagine a world where employees have space to be themselves, we ask and they speak about the personal parts of their life so they don’t feel they have to hide parts of themselves.  “How are you really?”  “How is your mom?  Is she feeling better?”  Adding circle tables to a break room so people can interact.  Integrating our values into conversations about our objectives, especially when we are struggling with an issue.  We want our employees to be innovative problem-solvers, and we can do that by being compassionate with them.

Compassion.  I was unable to attend Adam Grant’s presentation.  But from what I saw on the twitters, it was amazing.  One thing he challenged me on is ending exit interviews.  The argument (via him and some super HR pros) is that we should have known about the problems before the employee leaves.  This is absolutely true.  We should have known.  When an employee is so afraid to talk to us while still working for us, we have lost.  Lost big time.  We need employees to want to talk with us, to want to share the good stuff and the bad stuff.  This takes trust.  We can foster trust by being compassionate with our folks.  Knowing their names, their struggles, their successes.  When they see that we are interested and invested in their well-being, they will come to us with their concerns.

So, what do we owe each other?  Do we owe each person around us respect?  Hells to the yeah.  Do we owe each other attention when a problem crops up or a success is achieved?  Yes.  Do we owe someone time when he is asking for help in dealing with FMLA paperwork because his wife is ill?  Yes.  All of this takes compassion.  When we see people suffering, do we owe them help?  Yes.  It breaks my heart to see people suffering.  I hope that is true for everyone in HR.  We owe ourselves, our employees, and the people around us compassion.

I’m going to try to remain hopeful and do better myself.

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Relationships Fail

I’ve been a bit of a Donna Downer over the past two weeks.  With 15 harassment/respectful workplace training sessions, I have repeatedly explained the following:

Relationships fail at an alarming rate.  Think of all the relationships you suffer through before you get married.  Could be a lot, right?  Then, only 50 percent of marriages last.  So if you start a relationship at work, it might not last.  Are you ready for that?

Fifteen percent of relationships start at work.  This means that employers – and probably more than a few HR folk – wring their hands over what could happen with a relationship at work.  They may be worried about harassment, favoritism, and the distraction.  But they are also worried about the break-up.  Will the couple be professional?  Will they be petty?  Will their harassment and retaliation policies be invoked?  There are all sorts of worry.  Here’s what I’d like us to worry about.

Professionalism.  When we’re dating someone, we’re not professional.  We don’t keep physical contact to handshakes.  We may (overly) use emojis in emails and messages.  We share secrets, gossip, and vent about work stuff with our significant others.  These are all examples of behavior that is rarely “professional.”

Confidentiality.  Being in a relationship at work may mean we’re sharing sensitive and confidential information with someone who should not have the information.  If one of the couple is in payroll, processing bonus checks before bonuses are announced and shares what his partner is going to get before the announcement, this is a problem.  When we’re in the relationship, we believe we could trust our partner, yet people make mistakes.  Information goes farther than it should.  People find out about decisions before we’re ready to share them and

Harassment.  When couples get too touchy-feely in the workplace, others are uncomfortable.  As Black Widow once told Captain America, “Public displays of affection make people uncomfortable.”  When others are uncomfortable, harassment policies come into play.  It is not unusual to see another employee complain of harassment, especially when they believe (rightly or not) that favoritism is rearing its ugly head.

Chain of command.  When a relationship involves a manager and one of her employees, everything gets more complicated.  There will be allegations of favoritism.  If (when) the couple is in conflict with each other, it may (will) affect their working relationship.  Some of my clients prohibit these kinds of relationships, and I don’t blame them.  We may change the reporting structure, transfer one to a different shift or department.  The risks here given the imbalance of power are significant.

With those concerns, some employers resort to love contracts.  Please don’t.  Love contracts give the appearance that the employer is dictating the terms and conditions of the romance.  And, with the piece of paper, we look even more like we’re heavily monitoring the relationship.  Not a good look.  That said, HR and a manager can certainly have a conversation with the couple about their responsibilities to be professional and avoid the appearance of conflicts of interests.  This conversation should happen.  It even should be documented by HR, but please don’t have a love contract signed by the couple.  We want to be human at work, not overlords.

Despite some of the content of this post, I’m a huge fan of love.  We go into love with big eyes, big hearts, and bushy tails – as it should be.  When that love happens at work, there’s a new level of complexity where we have to be careful.  Call your friendly neighborhood employment attorney.

 

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Man-Bashing Training

Question:  Do we vilify men in harassment training?   

Think about that for a moment.  Do we use more man-on-woman examples?  (Probably.)  Do we need to change this?  Yes.  Harassment training is for everybody because everybody could harass.  According to a recent poll, one in seven men has experienced harassment at work. So, we can’t ignore men and their experiences just because so many women have similar experiences.

It is possible (and maybe even likely) that we’ve created an environment surrounding harassment training that we’ve alienated men or have come across as attacking them.  If this is the case, we should be criticized.  And, we should do better.  Here’s how I think we can do this:

Know our audience.  Every training should be customized to the workplace.  If the scenarios don’t feel real, the training won’t have an impact.  Because we have men in our workplaces, we can’t exclude their experience (and fear) from our training.  We should address it, and give a workable framework on what we expect from them.

Start with respect.  Often in trainings, I hear the statement, “I can’t even compliment a woman anymore.”  This comment comes from a man, usually over 40, who is sitting with his arms crossed, angry that he even needs to be in the room.  I turn to him and say, “There’s a difference between ‘That dress is very nice on you’ and ‘That dress hugs you in all the right ways.’”  He nods, and if I’m lucky, he chuckles a bit.  I then say, “We’re here to talk about that difference.”  That difference is respect.

For all of you labor lawyers cringing at this, listen up!  We live in a society where respect is under a near constant barrage.  We can’t operate in workplaces where respect and integrity aren’t at the core of what we are.  Without respect, we don’t get innovation.  So, we should make respect the cornerstone of our training. Our employees want respect.  They expect and deserve respect.  Starting our training talking about respect is what we must do.  If every conversation was respectful, we wouldn’t have harassment.

Have diverse examples.  Women-on-women harassment happens.  Men-on-men harassment happens.  So, we should have diverse examples.  Some of my best examples – examples that result in the most discussion – are man-on-man and woman-on-man.  We want to have a discussion and a bit of uncomfortableness.  Because we learn when we experience and are at least a bit uncomfortable, the discussion has any chance to really make a difference.

Use the whole scale of harassment.  Include examples of calling someone “sweetheart” or “man candy.”  Talk about staring, dirty jokes, and racial epithets.  You can talk about kissing, hugging, and even assault too, but ignoring the subtle stuff ignores where most harassment starts.  We don’t want this.

Ask, “what would you do?”  We should put our employees in the uncomfortable position of asking them what they would do.  You may be surprised by the responses.  Then, we should explain what we want them to do.  We don’t have to change their personalities to get between a harasser and his/her victim, but we should at least explain who we want them to tell.

Harassment training should mirror the tone of our workplaces.  It should set expectations and be meaningful for employees and managers.  It should make our employees contemplate their conduct without making them feel bad.

One more point:  Ladies, we don’t get to objectify men at work.  I’ve heard the argument that men have objectified women for a long time, so women should get to objectify men as a matter of fairness or even that they like it (uff da).  But like India has to grow green while we polluted for decades, we have to do the right thing.  We can’t objectify them either.  Enjoy a Magic Mike movie, but you can’t bring the poster into the office.  Ok?

This evening, I get to talk about trends in harassment training.  I’ve very excited (and a more than a bit nervous) about this.  Eliminating man-bashing will be one of the trends along with bystander and civility components, manager focus, and welcomeness elimination.  Any others you think I should talk about?

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Die Annual Performance Review Die

Client calls.  Asks if they can fire Jerry for performance reasons.  The first (seriously, the very first) question I ask is, “what do Jerry’s performance reviews say?”  Experience has taught me that performance-related terminations usually have a homegrown enemy – the employee’s previous annual performance reviews.  What if we could eliminate the enemy by doing it better?

No one likes performance reviews.  Employees lose sleep the night before a review meeting.  Managers hate completing all the forms and fear having uncomfortable conversations.  HR turns into nagging mother-in-law types trying to track down managers to get all the forms turned in so that performance increases can be made.  No one likes this.

Performance reviews are rarely done well.  Most typically, the reviews are so vague they are meaningless.  They focus only on recent events and not performance over the entire year.  They are chockfull of bias.  Sometimes, a manager pretends he lives in Lake Wobegon where all the employees are above average.  Because we in HR are focused on handling the next fire, we don’t have time to push back on managers who do not do performance management well.  So, a poorly completed review gets stuck in a personnel file until I ask about it when the client wants to terminate.

Even when the termination is completely warranted and lawful, it’s the performance review that hurts.  The termination is going to have to get explained.  I’m confident that I am not the only employment attorney stuck explaining why an employee was terminated for bad performance just weeks after a positive review.  (We attorneys should form a secret society complete with a secret handshake.)  Our explanation is often couched in terms of a rapid performance decline as explained by a manager who “wanted to be nice” in the review but had observed poor performance that resulted in a lost customer, order, and so on.  The explanation by both the attorney and the manager is expensive for the company.

These are just a few of the reasons I want the annual performance review to die.  I’m not advocating for the end of performance management – quite to opposite.  I want more frequent, meaningful reviews for everyone.  Here’s my wishlist:

  • Conversation coaching.  Managers need to have difficult conversations with employees about performance.  Most managers, and particularly new managers, have not learned how to have these difficult conversations.  HR pros are conversation coaches, so we need to coach our managers on how to have these conversations.  Or, we need to get our managers the training and skills necessary.
  • Frequent discussions.  I love one-on-ones when they’re done right.  Brief meetings that discuss how projects are progressing that also discuss how the employee is doing are vital to successful businesses.  With this, managers get a sense of what roadblocks they can remove, and employees get critical feedback on how to do better.
  • Transparency.  People need to know how they’re doing.  Managers need to tell them.  Use examples.  Explain how things can improve.  Show.  If employees know where they stand, they may be able to understand why you’re firing them and not believe it is for some unlawful reason.
  • Recognize.  It isn’t just poor performance that needs to see the light of day.  Good performance does too.  Managers need to know how to champion those performers with potential as well as coaching those who just haven’t meet expectation quite yet.
  • Documents.  (Insert collective reader sigh here.)  Yes, feedback discussions should be documented.  I don’t care you document provided you document and I can get it later when we need it.  You can use the functionality of your HCM or you can have managers email themselves brief synopsis of each conversation.  With the conversation coaching, coach managers how to document as well, including how to remove references to protected class status, leave use, or other items that could get an organization in trouble.

Employees deserve to know how they are doing.  More importantly, they want to know how they are doing.  That’s what a great performance management process can do – get employees what information they need to do their jobs well so we can do our business well.

 

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