It’s gifting season. When I talk to groups about trying to effectively prevent and address unwelcome behavior at work, I talk a lot about gifts — those things people give us voluntarily. Like feedback. When we get a gift, most of us have been taught, we don’t necessarily respond authentically (what the heck did you give me THAT for?) Instead, we thank the person, show appreciation and say something like “I know just what I’ll do with it.” We don’t throw gifts back at people, because that makes them hurt or angry. We are gracious and we accept the gift. Applying this little analogy has really helped me to take feedback that doesn’t feel great, and by their accounts,has helped scores of people who realized being told their behavior was a problem by the person bugged by the behavior was MILES better than getting “that call” from HR and being told they had been the subject of the complaint.
So today, I get to give my readers some gifts. Lessons learned from 2013’s investigations, consultations and mediations. These are lessons for managers and employers, employees and organizations, and while they may not be the gift you were hoping for, they are offered in the spirit of lessons learned that can hopefully prevent problems for you in the future.
1) Employees and Bosses can not be friends.
Go ahead and be social. Discuss your favorite TV shows and stories about your kids. Have a team dinner periodically. Have conversations, even disagreements about sports, music and celebrity gossip. Travel together to conferences and enjoy one another. This is what professional relationships look like. Do not cross the line into sharing marital or relationship issues, confide in one another about your deepest fears or childhood traumas, or spend time together on the weekends “just to hang out.” Why? Well, if you are the employee, you are going to develop an unrealistic sense of comfort with this-person-who-manages-and-evaluates-you, and you may reach a point where you have “overshared,” There will be no magic signal to tell you this, but what happens is that your “friend” starts worrying about how things in your personal life might affect your job (If he can treat his mother that way…) Or, the day will come when you come in late and smile lamely at your “friend,” who realizes they have to write you up, and rather than being irked at your boss, you are going to feel wounded because your “friend” wasn’t, well…your friend.
For you boss, the risks are greater. You risk, at least, concerns about favoritism. Nothing stokes the green-eyed monster in employees than a perception of favoritism. Since you likely aren’t “friends” at an equal level with all of your reports, one friendship is going to look closer than another, and the assumption WILL BE MADE that the employee closest to you gets special treatment. That is the LEAST problematic. More problematic is that you are going to develop a blind spot with this employee, and something will happen in which you discover you have been taken advantage of. Perhaps the employee shares information about you with someone else in the workplace, or represents that you were okay with something you never knew about. Well, boss-person, what is going to happen is this; you are going to feel betrayed or hurt. It will sting. Maybe you will have a little chat with the employee, or maybe you’ll just “let it go,” but the fact is, that employee’s little errors or omissions, or failure to meet deadlines is now going to seem somehow a bigger deal than before. You are going to decide it is time to draw some limits, and you are going to communicate that to the employee, who is going to get upset. Now, instead of an employee-boss performance issue to be managed professionally and appropriately, you have a personal conflict. Hurt feelings. Attempts to mend them. Anger, tears, resentment. The other employees? They’re tired of the drama and they lose respect for you.Or they take advantage of the chaos and go after your “friend.” Honestly. It goes this way far more than you think. You just cannot be friends. At best, you look unfair. At worst, you are unfair.
2. Covert Workplace Relationships are rarely covert and almost never end well
Trust me on this. You think you’re seamless. You think no one notices the little looks, the separate entrances and exits, the small exchange of gifts or the coordinated business travel. THEY DO. They know about it, they talk about it, and they resent it. Even if you are truly careful, people can smell this stuff at work. No your employer has no business telling you what to do in your personal life, BUT WORK IS NOT YOUR PERSONAL LIFE. See above on the favoritism, see above on the friendship, and be aware that when your relationship goes bad and suddenly working with this person-who-is-the-world- to- you- now feels a lot like being embalmed in toxic waste, your employer is not going to be sympathetic…oh and if the relationship goes bad, there is a teeny little chance that your former lover might go to HR and claim that your attentions were never welcome to begin with. Or your former lover might decide to start shirking on his or her assignments, and when you try to “hold them accountable,” they might point out that you never did that when you two were in the grips of passion…so you are now holding them to different standards because you are no longer having sex. No JD required to figure out where that might go.
3. If you manage people, and you have ever been annoyed that an employee is a) insufficiently grateful for all you have done or b) should just be happy to have a job, you should probably either quit managing people or take a psych course.
We come to work. We know what we do has some value, because someone is willing to pay us to do it. If we do it well, we assume, we will be rewarded. If you are rewarding us to do something, we think it probably has significant value (are you seeing a theme here?) We come to work and we give what we can. Not everyone is a great employee, but 90 percent of employees think they are in the top 20 percent of performers. I have never, ever met an employee who described themselves as “in the bottom 20 percent.” And, let’s face it, employees go through a lot to do their work. They come in to work on days they don’t feel great, they put aside personal stuff happening in their life, they deal with coworkers with issues from halitosis to psychopathy, they have to attend meetings characterized by honchos barking platitudes, they have to jump through hoops, get ideas shot down, manage up, grind out productivity, deal with weak supervision and limited feedback, do parts of their jobs for which they have inadequate training or equipment…let’s just say not all of employment, even great employment, is a walk in the park. While employee’s self assessment may be highly inaccurate, the vast majority of them believe they are giving you more than your money’s worth, and that you, as an employer, should be recognizing, rewarding and promoting them more than you are. Sure, they see you have given them opportunities and may be truly appreciative, but they also believe those opportunities came because you knew they would step up and their success would reflect well on you.
Another thing? Employees don’t complain, especially about you, without giving it a whole lot of thought. Fear of reprisal or job loss is a very big deal. Most employees who are unhappy with their boss wait months before they say something, They have tried to cope and found that they can’t. Maybe their performance has suffered, and maybe their reputation. They perceive themselves as risking everything to get a problem solved. At that point, whatever is bugging them has become such a big deal in their life it is probably following them home. So if an employee has the temerity to come to you with a concern about something going on in their workplace…well, they aren’t thinking how nice it was that you promoted them two years ago, or that they are “lucky” to be giving you the best work they can (in their opinion,) they are actually thinking that there is a contract of sorts, whereby they give you their talents and skills and productivity and commitment, and you give them a safe place to do that and compensate them appropriately. Thank them. Listen to them. Let them know their concerns are being taken seriously. Do something. If the employee went to someone else, it’s not a sign of ingratitude…it’s a sign that something needs fixing. Humility is a pretty cool part of the human condition.
4) “Managing Performance” is about trying to make it better. “Bullying” is about trying to make it worse.
Look, I’ve been around HR a long time. Some of my best friends and clients are in HR. This is a place our HR colleagues sometimes get it wrong. You have someone with a performance problem. Maybe you have inherited them from a previous supervisor or manager, or maybe you have finally thrown up your hands because your coaching hasn’t worked. You meet with HR, who tells you it is time to start “managing performance.” Awesome. That means you sit down with the employee and have a frank discussion about your concerns and their concerns. You listen carefully to what they think has gotten things off track. You give them specific examples and listen to their perspective, they listen to yours. You try to get to root cause. Is it out of work stuff? Is there a need for EAP? Is it something about a skills gap or job design? You clarify expectations and work with the employee to try to fill the performance gaps. You set short term checkpoints and provide the tools or assistance needed to help them succeed. Lather, rinse, repeat…and if those short term objectives are not being met, you foreshadow the ultimate determination of a non fit between the job and the employee.
No? What HR is advising is to begin documenting each and every one of the employee’s errors, failure to comport to policies, attitude issues and more? That the employee should be placed on a Performance Improvement Plan drafted by HR and presented to the employee for signature, which essentially says that they situation will not change but the performance is expected to? By being abrupt, cold, unavailable, or straight out rude to the employee from that point forward? To write up the employee for infractions in as high a volume as possible? To make sure the employee can figure out that the employer does not want him or her there, but lacks the will or skill to simply say that? To take away supervision, tools, and human warmth until the employee quits? Nah, that’s not managing performance. It’s bullying, and it kills the soul of an organization and the people in it. Really, if someone is that destructive or problematic in a work environment, isn’t it better to just call it a day and give them their notice than to drag them through the dehumanizing ritual of “death by documentation?”
Employees? If your employer is taking the time to really give you performance feedback, and is telling you specifically where you are falling short, you are lucky. It is one of the least happy moments in a good leaders life to have that conversation. They hired you, invested in you, trained you, and something is going off the rails. It’s nothing personal, and it’s not too late. Listen to what they are telling you. Engage in the process. Be honest about what’s getting in your way. No one sat back and said “let’s take the time to really listen to this employee so we can screw him or her.” If they are treating you like a human being, it’s a sign they really do care and want you to succeed. Rise to the occasion, and hopefully everyone will grow as a result.
Here is wishing everyone a holiday season characterized by moderate alcohol use at company gatherings, company gatherings that remain businesslike and festive, and tons of opportunities to engage in charity and community service for employers and employees alike.