Reflections on Fairness

March 9, 2016

I had the honor of speaking at HR West today.  It is one of the best HR conferences in North America, filled with energetic keynotes, informative breakouts and entertaining exhibitors.  Today I delivered “The Fairness Quotient and Why it Matters,” an evolving talk about the power of fairness to create resilience and loyalty in employees.  Today was special for me because I got to roll out my newly commissioned infographic:

Sepler Fairness Final

What I’m excited about is the concept that organizations don’t have to be perfect.  The evidence shows that if you are strong on only one dimension of fairness– distributive, procedural or interactional — that you significantly reduce the likelihood of employee claims and charges.  For years, I have been telling clients that outcomes are less important than process, that explanations are more important than outcomes, and that voice takes precedence over facts when trying to establish facts.  What this infographic puts together is all of the positive things that can be mined by following that simple set of principles.

When we deliver difficult news– an unexpected business change, reductions in force, even telling someone they did not get the job or promotion  — we have a choice about how to manage that.  Explanations, hearing someone out, honesty and yes, even apologies (well worded ones) can turn a potentially disengaged employee into a newly appreciative on.  When we train supervisors to focus on fair process, we gain the trust of employees in good times and bad, and when our leaders define fairness as a value, we create cultures that signal to employees every day that they matter.  This in turn lights the switch on positive metrics such as engagement and retention, and it increases the likelihood that when people have problems they will come to us sooner, giving us the time and opportunity to help them resolve the problems and get back to work.  This, my friends, is important and simple stuff.

If you would like a high quality hard copy of this infographic (suitable for hanging!) sent to you by snail mail, please drop me a line at  If you’d like to hear more about workplace fairness, just let me know.


Getting to Yes: Simple Leadership

January 4, 2016

It is sometimes the simplest ideas that bring about real culture change in organizations.

Three simple questions. Three simple answers. The result is a harbinger of everything important to employers. It’s very simple to create a respectful workplace if you boil it down to this: if you can get one hundred percent of your employees to answer three questions with “yes” every single day, you will have a workplace where employees are engaged, they are productive, they are self-correcting (because they are giving and getting honest feedback) and they are showing up and staying with your organization. What are these magical questions?
Does my employer value me?
• Do the people I work with and for treat me fairly and humanely?
• Does my work matter?
Of course, the converse is true. If only some of your employees say “yes,” the rest are saying “no.” Negative answers to these questions bring about behavior, attitudes and performance issues that take time, energy and emotional investment away from the organization’s mission.
If it’s that easy, why is it so hard to find employees who love what they do? Because we focus on too many metrics, we make organizations unnecessarily complicated, and we don’t measure leaders on the happiness and engagement of their employees. If, instead of complex performance matrices or numerical fictions, we simply told leaders that they would be evaluated, rewarded and compensated on how many “yesses” they got to these three questions, how would they be spending their time? Teaching, coaching, praising, guiding, communicating and collaborating. Try it. Put these questions on your wall and every day ask yourself, “How can I get my people to yes?” Challenge other leaders to do the same. If the experience of one of my clients is indicative, your people will notice the difference immediately. In three months of “getting to yes,” theft was reduced, productivity improved, conflict was handled at a lower level, attendance improved and injuries were reduced. Supervisors began to post their ideas for getting their employees to “yes.” No complicated training, no lectures. Three simple questions, one big payoff.

Tragedy, Civility and the Workplace

January 11, 2011

I can’t help thinking that the tragic shooting of public servants and innocent bystanders in Arizona must be turned from so dark a moment to a catalyst for something positive . With pundits and politicians arguing about a madman’s motives and either casting or deflecting blame, let it be sufficient to say that turning our attention to how we speak to one another can’t do any harm.

It has been a constant theme in my work of late to have employees discuss their concerns about political discussions in the workplace. When describing prohibited conduct, including protected class harassment, I am frequently asked about individuals who foist their views on others, who name call those without shared beliefs, or who attempt to rile up those with views different from theirs. I am asked if this is ‘harassment’ and must respond that it is not usually unlawful harassment (unless there are offensive protected-class related comments), but it certainly disrupts the workplace. With great frequency, the follow-on question is whether people should discuss politics at work.

How are we to answer this question? I tend to reflexively turn to the model that places politics in the “values” column, with the conventional wisdom being that discussing values in the workplace is risky — predominantly because if one’s values differ from a coworker’s it might be difficult to reconcile the opposing viewpoints sufficiently to continue to work together with good will. This is why we don’t have casual conversations about, say, abortion, or the existence or non-existence of heaven or hell; too often, an opposing belief creates personal animus that can sabotage effective workplace relationships.
Values, Attitudes, Behavior

Certainly there are legions of advisers who agree that discussing politics at work is divisive. Others note the geometric effect that social media has on creating complexity in workplace debates about politics.. They are right. Discussing politics at work is…well, impolitic, and risky.

I wonder, however, if the evolving workplace might someday provide a tonic to the tone of today’s political discourse. If we think about it, the workplace is uniquely bounded by policy, rule and culture. Good employers expect employees to value diversity and to behave respectfully and civilly in order to ensure high performance. These organizations have been working hard to let people bring their differences to work. In these places, conflict is managed maturely and well. Perhaps it is in those workplaces we will ultimately find the model for the rest of America; the America that understands that alignment of purpose does not mean agreement on strategy, and that different voices make for a great chorus.

It’s a challenge; if you and I work together, respect one another, trust one another and have much in common, perhaps we can resolve to have a discussion about our differences in a civil, respectful manner. Perhaps the workplace provides us a forum to listen to understand rather than to persuade. In other words, if all is going well, we are at our best in the workplace. We are hopefully surrounded by people who we value. Maybe it is at the workplace where we appreciate the contribution someone is making that we can hear views different from our own and recognize that not everyone who disagrees with us has to be one of the vilified “others.”

Is this idealistic? Absolutely, but as a consultant who spends time with organizations at their darkest hours as well as during their brightest days, I find the capacity to listen without judgment, hear diverse perspectives, learn to live with those who see the world differently and embrace conflict as energy to be harnessed leads to organizations that excel in every respect. What a wonderful possibility it is that the workplace could be a model for the larger society, and in turn become even a better place to make a contribution. It is certainly worth considering.

The Modified Golden Rule. What do you think?

December 3, 2010

This morning catching up on back reading, I read David Yamada’s post “What if we applied the Golden Rule at Work?”. It brought me back to my earliest days of educating workers and coaching “bad actors” and my struggle with the assertion by many that if we just lived by the Golden Rule, everything would be fine. I am an immense admirer of Yamada’s work, and embrace fully his thinking, but perhaps it is time to modify the rule.

I found several years ago that when educating about workplace behavior, the Golden Rule came up short. Too often, people would say “Well, I wouldn’t care if someone said/did that to me.” Very often, these were bullies or harassers who lacked the empathy or sensitivity to recognize others’ perspectives. I even had one bad actors’ wife arrive to a coaching session with her spouse to explain that she found his behavior acceptable. As a matter of pedagogy and also for purposes of making culture change in organizations, I had to find a way to bring this to the next level.

My thinking led me to this: if we modify the rule slightly, changing it from “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” to “Treat others as THEY would have you treat them,” it increases the complexity of civil behavior substantially, but also reflects the challenges of the real world. Civil and respectful behavior compels a need to understand others and modify our conduct to accommodate THEIR world view. An example I provide is the profound aversion I feel when I hear well-intentioned people saying that this is a “Christian Nation.” As a child of holocaust survivors, it kicks off a ton of aversive feelings and ideas programmed into me at an early age. “But,” cry the learners….”how can we avoid stepping on every landmine?” Some would argue that my response is thin skinned. Others would roll their eyes and moan about “political correctness,” but the fact is that if I tell you it offends me, you can show me that I’m worth a minor modification in your terminology, or that I’m not. One will improve our relationship. One will sour it. So, how to reckon with this? The answer is twofold:

1) In the world of the modified golden rule, it is my responsibility to provide you with feedback. To let you know that my world view is different from yours. I might say “I know that this seems like an innocuous term to you, but it offends me.” This means that I have to be willing to risk triggering a defensive reaction in you, demonstrate courage and give you the opportunity to do the right thing. It’s hard, but necessary.

2) In the world of the modified golden rule, you now know how I’d like to be treated, and you have the opportunity to treat me as I would like to be, even if it is dissimilar from your view on the term. You need to accept that my view is different from yours. Not better, not right, not correct, but different, and that your reaction can build or damage our future interactions.

I’m a pragmatist. I know that speaking up is hard. It is hard to give someone negative feedback. We are largely programmed to “suck it up” when someone bugs us. If you don’t buy that, think to the last time you were on an airplane, and someone wanted to talk to you, but you did not want to talk to them. Did you tell them to leave you alone, or did you signal your discomfort non verbally, or at all? We calculate that it is better to tolerate the unwelcome behavior than to risk offending or upsetting the seatmate.

I assert that while we can afford to tolerate the temporary intrusion of a stranger in a temporary situation, that we must develop a different set of behaviors for our workplaces, where we go each and every day and must carve out a place where we can get our work done in the best possible way. To get to this place, we have to first feel safe to speak up, and secondly we need to learn to take critical feedback on our utterances and actions that may make us defensive, but to view them as key information about what it will take to build a relationship with the person in question. This can only happen when the leaders in the C-Suite demonstrate receptivity, emotional intelligence and the capacity to take criticism and candor (One of the best books on this subject is Michael Roberto’s “Why Great Leaders don’t take Yes for an Answer”)

So, the modified golden rule means this: if every employee, from the top of the organization to the last hired, knows they can speak up if something offends them, and every employee, from top to last hired will do their best to listen, understand and accommodate the concern, you will have a workplace that not only is free from expensive and painful litigation, but you will become an employer of choice.

New Years Resolutions for Employee Relations Practitioners and their Leaders

December 30, 2009

It is always best to use the year end to take stock of things that have gone well, and things that need to be improved in the new year.  In this spirit, I offer my clients and their leaders some resolutions to consider:

1.  Take your  unhappy employees as  seriously as you take your “good” employees.

Thinking of unhappy employees as “whiners” or “malcontents” is not only counterproductive, but it’s also a sign to other employees that you don’t take their concerns seriously.  Unhappy employees make other employees unhappy.  They drag down productivity and build alliances with other employees, creating long-term irritation in the climate of the organization.  Devote some resources to an unhappy employee.  Is the cause of their concerns legitimate?  Are they having trouble at home that could be helped through some time off or through your EAP?  Do they need some coaching on how to deal with a situation or an individual?  Even more importantly, an employee who is in a a state of protracted unhappiness  is likely to perceive, (sometimes accurately) that they are being “targeted.” By focusing your early interventions with unhappy employees on making things better, you reduce the probability the employee will become a complainant requiring far more attention later on.

2. Communicate.  As often as you can and as much as you can.

Organizations without information are vacuums.  When people have no information, they fill in the blanks, often with the worst possible spin.  An employee who has “disappeared” is presumed to have been fired unfairly.  A series of executive meetings can be perceived as the first steps in planning layoffs.  A seemingly innocuous new policy is viewed as something being “done to” employees.  Fill the vacuum with information that is good, honest, and lets employees know what to expect.  From the top of the house, it is often easy to forget that communication is the staff of life for employee engagement.  Make sure it cascades all the way to the ears of your team. Let them know what will be happening, why it is happening, how it will affect them, and what type of input they can provide, if any.  Make sure there is someplace they can ask questions, and make sure they will get consistent answers.

3. Investigate with Care

Conducting investigations requires specialized training. It also requires neutrality, independence and time.  Doing an internal investigation that has all of these qualities is not always easy, or even possible.  A poor investigation will create more problems than it can possibly solve.  Make sure you are putting the correct resources in place before the moment comes to investigate employee misconduct.  Good investigations show employees you take them seriously, that you intend to be fair and equitable and that all parties will have a chance to speak when accusations are leveled.  These are powerful cultural messages that can’t be left to chance.

4.  Take the old adage seriously

Your people are your most important asset.  Not the folks in the executive suite, although they may be your “top talent,” but the people who leave their homes and families each day to come to your place of employment; the ones who take pride in their work and your product or service; who put in extra time, take extra care, treat one another as though they matter, and share a small piece of psychological ownership that makes you competitive.  Thank them.  Reward them.  Be honest with them.  Listen to them.  They are, each one of them, the heart of your organization.

The “Other” Harassment: The Bully in Your Office

March 24, 2009

“His face was inches from mine,” said the complainant.  “I felt as though he was going to hit me.  He didn’t yell, but spoke so slowly that it was as though I was a child.  I could feel myself shaking.  He told me I was worthless, and then threw the report on my desk and stomped out.”

This (composite) statement was made by a middle aged man in a mid management position, describing one of many incidents involving his male manager.  The history included name calling, public belittling, threats of job loss and the periodic throwing of objects or (in one case) destroying work product.  Desperate, he had gone to see his Human Resources manager who told him, not for the first time, that there was little she could do.  There had been numerous complaints over the years, but this behavior was neither discriminatory nor violent, and therefore was viewed more as a “style issue” than an issue of policy.  This company, like most, did not have a policy prohibiting bullying or “general harassment”–that is  intimidating behavior that is not based on protected class status and does not rise to a level of threats of violence.

“The truth is,” said the Human Resources Manager when seeking my advice,”Frank (pseudonym) is one of our most effective guys, results wise.  He manages up brilliantly and no matter his methods, he gets the job done.  When we’ve tried to influence his leader to take control of the situation, he suggests that we recruit better people for Frank.  He tells us that Frank is a driver, and the problem is his subpar staff.”

What are workplaces to do with the “Franks” of the workplace?  Talented and capable, perfectionistic and goal driven, they are ideal leaders on paper.  Their metrics tend to shine, but not reflect the damage inflicted on others and the unused potential wasted in the process.  In the best of worlds, bullys would be spotted early in their careers and held accountable for their people practices.  Technical expertise would have to somehow be paired with a modicum of emotional intelligence and an understanding of human development.  That doesn’t happen in most organizations, and most particularly in the professions such as law and medicine, where one rises on the strength of their accomplishments, not their relationships.

In May, I will be presenting a short session on  bullies at  Minnesota CLE’s   Strategic Discovery: Preventing Discovery Abuses and Handling Discovery Disputes. It will be focused on attorneys in litigation, but in preparation, I’ve been looking through the files of the many workplace bullies referred to me for coaching over the years.  These folks have agreed to see me because they either recognize they have an issue or they have been told that their career progress or even retention was conditional upon being coached.  From them, I have learned several things: Read the rest of this entry »

The Fear: A Look at Employees’ Reluctance to Complain in Tough Times

January 14, 2009

If my workload mix is any indication, investigations are down.  Last year, I did over fifty investigations between January and September, and between September and December, only a handful.  While I am pleased to engage in other services for my clients, I have to consider the reason for the change in project mix.  Are people happier? Have employers become enlightened and learned to engage and motivate their people? Has there been a quantum reduction in employee misconduct? Perhaps, but more likely we have entered a period in which people are just darned glad to have a job.  You can see the change in mindset in many places.  For instance, I frequent a woman’s running forum, where we share lots of things besides running.  One of our regulars has been having trouble on her job, and some of the trouble seems to involve serious bullying by a supervisor.  Whereas a year ago, the assertive posters on that forum might have directed her to speak up, to complain, or even to quit and find something else, the general advice was, “in this economy, maybe you’d better just figure out how to survive it.”  The economy has everyone scared, and that fear has simply magnified the fear intrinsic to so many employees — the logic, or illogic that reflexively says, “I can’t complain about my bosses behavior — they’ll fire me.”

For years, the reflexive instinct that employers will punish complainers has been fascinating to me.  Of course, the fear is not unfounded, or there would be no need for laws protecting employees from retaliation — yet the number of cases I see in which employers are astutely avoiding even a semblance of retaliation far outweigh those incidents suggesting that an employee has been punished for speaking up.  Nevertheless, the longstanding fear of complaining has something I have worked with many organizations to overcome.  Now, with employees feeling simply lucky to have a job at all, employers should not get complacent and assume that all is well.  Those that view the silence as positive do so at their own peril.

It is worth considering that an employee experiencing bad behavior by others, but who does not complain about it is not a good thing.  It is inevitable, in the absence of a change, that the unhappy employee’s productivity and engagement will diminish.  As time passes and productivity and engagement continue to drop, the employee might be subject to progressive counseling or disciplinary action.  Faced with such action,the employee may finally surface the now-longstanding concerns, forcing the employer to have to unravel the “chicken and egg” of alleged bad behavior and a seemingly “bad” employee.  The numbers tell the truth:  over 50 percent of employees who raise complaints of harassment have some sort of performance or disciplinary issue going on at the time of the complaint. When the complaint involves alleged unlawful behavior,  the employer becomes hamstrung between continuing to correct the performance issues and appearing retaliatory.  In many cases, despite attempts to keep things contained, the situation becomes complex and  demoralizing to others.  Suddenly, the cost of the problem becomes more than that of one employee’s productivity — it becomes a matter that has effectively handcuffed performance management at a time when managing performance is an imperative.

The average length of time between an employee’s recognition of a problem and their reporting it as alleged harassment is 16 months, and that is a number culled from a healthy economy.  With worries about job security and a job market that is on it’s last gasp, one might argue that the pressure to keep one’s problems to one’s self has increased geometrically. One might also think that the silence is golden.  People are keeping their heads down and doing their job, right? Think again.

In a shrinking workforce, the impact of a single unhappy employee is proportionately greater. In a smaller work group, viral unhappiness spreads more quickly. In stressed workers, conflict can be the final blow to diminishing morale.  More than ever, employers need to be proactive in attending to working conditions and relationships, to encourage employees to speak up and to train managers and supervisors to use intake skills that will demonstrate their willingness to address problems at the earliest possible moment.  In the most receptive* workplace cultures, supervisors, managers and human resources personnel understand that an employee complaint is a good thing.  It is an opportunity to address a problem before it becomes a factor in performance, productivity and engagement.  It is an opportunity to gain the trust of employees.  It is an opportunity to win loyalty and improve working conditions.  Supporting and training managers in eliciting and responding to employee concerns is not a “frill” that should go away in a declining economy, but an imperative that should be placed at the highest priority.

In the tense times of declining resources, as many organizations scramble for survival, it makes more sense than ever to be sure that employees are giving you their best work.  Maintaining an open door and an open mind to the challenges of human interaction may provide that tiny competitive advantage that can make the difference.

*using a cultural dyad of “receptive” versus “deflective” cultures

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