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You call THAT a retention strategy!?

There are no right or wrong retention strategies. Everything depends on so much on company size, industry, budget, location, customer/product base, whether or not the company is in high growth mode or hanging on for survival, etc. Having said that, I can tell that you that there are most definitely wrong ways to execute on retention strategies.

Let me be clear, I am not commenting on any genuine, well-intended attempt that a company puts forth to try and retain its people. It’s a competitive landscape out there and all is fair in talent acquisition and talent management. I applaud companies for trying innovative ways to keep people, especially when it simply isn’t possible to keep doling out chunks of cash year over year.

Businessman in chainsHowever, as an organization and as a (HR) leader, you have to stay true to the intent of the retention strategy. I believe that retention initiatives are first and foremost intended to keep your good people (duh!) but just as important they formulate part of your employment brand. You become known to current and potential candidates for the types of things you do to keep people. When done right, these can serve as great differentiators or enhancers to your brand and when applied the wrong way, they can severely damage it.

Let me give you an example. I recently came across an organization which invests heavily in the professional development of its technical staff. For anything beyond a conference or seminar, they would pay for the employee to take the course (typically post-secondary or certification based) with a 2-3 year payback period. Meaning, if they paid $3000 for you to become certified in something, if you left before the three mark, you would owe back $1000 for every year of service not completed after that. I.e. you take the course, 1 year later you leave; you owe $2000 – pretty straight forward and pretty fair.

Recently, the company started losing a lot of good talent to a competitor for a multitude of reasons. Some were based on pay, some were based on work culture and some were based on leadership. So what did the company do in response to this? Well, first off, they changed their professional development policy. If you left within 3 years you now owed 100% of the money back…no sliding scale! (Way to address the cultural issue you have!) Talk about using a good retention program for evil…or at the very least, with the wrong application!

A more specific example that occurred with this company is when one of their rising stars accepted a role with a competing company. She went to her manager to give him her two weeks’ notice. This employee had been there approx. 7 years and was a solid performer. So, what was the manager’s response when she resigned you ask? First thing he did was check to see if she “owed” the company anything. Sure enough, 3 years ago they had paid a few thousand bucks for her to take a certification. They told her she would owe the full amount back as she was a week short of the three year commitment. What made this truly slimy was that that this course was taken before their most recent policy change! (i.e. she was still on the sliding scale plan.)

So what did this employee do? She changed her notice period to three week’s (because the company she was going to was more than happy to wait one more week for her) and then she didn’t owe them anything. This was an employee who previously didn’t have anything bad to say about her current employer and was leaving on good terms, albeit for a new opportunity she couldn’t get there. However, this completely soured her on her previous company. She felt like her time there didn’t mean anything and that all they cared about was getting the last nickel out of her.

Now, instead of leaving and speaking highly of her time there, and possibly returning in the future, she left angry, upset and would not refer anyone there. Talk about using your retention program for the wrong reasons! The amount of damage done to this company’s brand in a short period of time is immeasurable. Word quickly got around (the industry and skill set this person works in is very niche) about how her previous company used their retention program as a hammer. Now there are even more employees there looking to move on!

The bottom line is this – HR Professionals, you have to be the stewards of your organizations and make sure this type of crap doesn’t happen. If you have retention issues, the answer isn’t to make your retention program(s) punitive and restricting and create an environment of indentured servitude. You need to dig deeper and get to some root cause analysis about why people are leaving your company. For the company referred to in this post, my guess, based on how this employee was treated, was that they may some short sighted leadership. But that’s just a guess. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of patrisyu/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

Employees only want one thing

There are many things that are important to employees. Depending on who you are, what your current personal, social-economic, familial and educational situation is like, you will have different things that are important to you when it comes to choosing and staying with a company. Some people need to make as much money as they can and are willing to put up with doing a job that is not what they want to be doing, or they will commute longer to make more money, etc.

Conversely, if work/life integration is important, some people will take less money to have a shorter commute, or fewer benefits or less training and development dollars to have a better balance. At the end of the day, the mix you strike as an employer is all about how well you market, recruit and understand your candidates. You need to be able to identify what is important to them, what you have to offer and then see if there is match by selling your employment brand features that you know will appeal to them.

respect saying

However, this post is not about recruiting. It is more about retention. You see, you can do a fantastic job of selling your company and all the great things you offer – whether it is top pay, great location, sexy work environment, professional development dollars, etc.; however, if your company is missing one key ingredient, the entire brand becomes organizationally bankrupt. You see, nothing will ever work out long term for you and your staff if there is no RESPECT.

Respect, and to an equal extent trust, are/is the most important ingredient(s) in your employee value proposition (EVP). No amount of smoke or mirrors, I mean, great compensation and benefits, will overcome a workplace that is void of respect. As well, any efforts made by a company to improve retention, engagement (although I hate that one), and the overall work environment will always be wiped out if your employees feel they aren’t being respected and/or they don’t trust you.

Now, I am not talking about a company that has one or two managers that don’t respect employees. Good organizations that vet their manager/leader types well, have good HR peeps and have support systems established that give employees a method and a voice to address concerns will have the ability to stamp out these types of singular issues appropriately.

The real problem is when your organization has a lack of respect at its core. This often permeates subtly throughout the organization and shows up in different ways, such that it affects managers and employees at all levels. Organizational disrespect is often like mold and rot forming in your house. It starts out slowly and subtly and before you realize it exists, you have a major problem. Quite often a lack of respect in organizations is not what you would typically think of. Most people think of disrespect as managers yelling, embarrassing or berating employees. They also think of disrespect often when it comes to a (bad) manager’s tone, delivery, cadence, etc. I think in organizations that have major respect issues it is much more than this.

If you want to make sure you are treating your employees with respect, you need to make sure as an organization you aren’t doing any of the following on a regular basis:

  • Asking for opinions and then ignoring them. In other words, doing employee surveys and then not responding or doing anything to improve specific areas. Nothing shows a blatant lack of respect (time and opinion) more than this.
  • Not communicating to staff. Essentially this falls into the “need to know bucket.” This typically manifests itself in an organizational culture in several ways:
    • employees are not informed about important matters that affect them (ever).
    • employees hear about changes after the fact, or from members outside their organization.
    • the rumour mill is more accurate and detailed then what is cascaded to staff.
    • the organization waits for “perfect” information before communicating anything, because, you know, “we can’t tell them a bit about something and then it turns out not to be true or happen.”
    • all employees hear about changes at the same time – there is no delineation based on role, importance of message, support required, etc.
  • Poor or no change management practices. Essentially organizations that don’t believe or follow any type of basic change management practices are being disrespectful to its employees. You can’t, as an organization, expect to implement significant organizational changes without a proper change/communication plan. This would include things like organizational/structural changes, geographic changes, major acquisitions, changes to benefits plans and changes to performance management practices to name a few.

By just “informing” your staff of something you are not only poorly communicating and not helping them manage change, you are also showing a general disrespect to your employees. The message you send is that whatever the change or information is that you have, it is simply not important enough to you (and your employees aren’t important enough) to be done properly through a communication plan and change management approach. It is simply something that needs to get checked off on the proverbial “to do list.”

Believe me when I tell you that in almost all organizations you have smart people that work for you. They “get” this stuff and understand the subtle message here. They know when they have been shown a lack of respect and they know when the message is “you aren’t important enough.” They may not voice their displeasure, but you will feel it through a lack of productivity, increased absenteeism and ultimately attrition. Oh, and that employment brand you have been working on marketing to new candidates to help improve your recruiting efforts…good luck with that.

Ironically, out of all the things companies can do to improve their brand, as well as their recruiting and retention efforts, communication and change management, for the purposes of showing respect to your employees, will be the CHEAPEST “initiative” or “program” you will ever launch. I just don’t understand why some companies don’t get that. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of Kathy Kimpel/Flickr.com

Breaking up is hard to do

Break ups are tough – both in your personal and professional life. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of both parties, things just don’t work out. Often enough, one side wants it to work out more so then the other side does. Typically, the other person knows this and when they have made the decision to move on (instead of trying to work things out) they often use the line, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Important to note here, it doesn’t matter if I am referring to personal or work relationships here!

Breaking UpHere is the thing, as employers, we sometimes have to face the fact that sometimes things just aren’t meant to be between employer and employee. You can try and make things work, you can do your best as a leader and/or HR Pro, but it simply doesn’t work. The reason being, the other party has their mind made up in terms of what they want (to do) and there is no changing their way of thinking.

Case in point, my good friend Brian who works as a Sales Manager recently experienced a break up with one his employees. “Roger” came to Brian’s company a few years ago with a solid base of experience and a good track record, albeit, he had a bit of tendency to change jobs every 2-4 years. Brian took a chance on hiring him and for the first two+ years things really paid off. Roger took to Brian’s approach and flourished under his leadership and quickly became one of Brian’s rising stars in his department.

Brian, whom I consider to be a great manager, did all the right things when it came to Roger. He coached him on a regular basis and invested a lot of his time advising and mentoring Roger and supporting his development. When Roger expressed an interest in doing and being more, Brian invested in leadership training and broader technical sales training for Roger. Brian kept the lines of communication open with Roger and always made sure he and Roger were aligned in terms of Roger’s career goals, etc. Year over year, Brian invested in enhancing Roger’s knowledge, skills and abilities and Roger continued to receive pay increases above the norm due to his job performance.

At the same time, Brian’s department continued to grow and he added more and more staff. Some of the new staff were junior and some came with more experience then Roger. However, Brian continued to make it clear to Roger that he was his #2 and he continued to pay for Roger’s training and development and kept coaching and mentoring him. A few months back, things began to change. After each training course he went on, Roger started to ask for more money. As Brian continued to develop him, Roger wanted more money because he thought he was continuing to become “more valuable.” Brian did all the right things; he spoke to Roger about how he would continue to reward him based on his performance. He explained how Roger was paid and what percentile he was in, etc. and made it clear the training and development was in investment in Roger, not a pay for skill model. In short, Brian was as transparent with Roger as he could be. He continued to paint the picture as to what Roger’s (bright) future was and would look like at the company. Three months later, Roger quit.

So what happened? Brian was devastated when Roger put in his resignation. Brian started to question himself and his management approach. What did he do wrong? What should he have done differently? I had to reassure Brian that there was nothing he could have done differently nor should he have. Roger told him it was time for him to move on to a different challenge, but the reality was that Roger was (mostly) leaving for more money (salary). You see, in his career, Roger was never told “no.” He was used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it. In his previous jobs, he either got more money or he moved on for more money. He used paid training as a way to build up his personal portfolio to leverage it for more money with his current or other employers.

Some secondary reasons also emerged. Turns out, Roger was a bit insecure. Despite Brian’s constant communication and reassurances, Roger panicked when growth occurred and other talent was hired. For some innate reason, he didn’t feel like the “top dog” anymore and he felt threatened/insecure in his role. It is possible he tried for a money play because he thought he might not be as “valuable” to Brian with more staff on board.

Brian found out about these things because he has a great HR team at his company who did a thorough job with stay interviews and their final exit interview with Roger. During his exit interview, Roger indicated that he was moving on for money (contrary to what he told Brian). Brian was confused as to whether Roger was really moving on for a better opportunity or if he was just using this as a way to get more money from Brian (something Brian stuck to his guns on).

As well, the industry Brian works in is pretty small, so he found out about some of Roger’s insecurities (through others) after Roger had left. All of which, left Brian feeling a bit down. Worst of all, for both Brian and Roger, Brian came to find out that Roger left for $6K more in salary and is by no means happier in his new role/company, but he is, however, “making more money.”

I had to “counsel” Brian not to take this personally. Sometimes things just don’t work out – they just aren’t meant to be. You can do all the right things as a manager; however, if your employee is hung up on wanting/thinking they need to make $1k, 2k, 5k more, you won’t get them past that, no matter what else is happening. That is, if direct cash compensation is the #1 driver of job satisfaction, there will always be an insatiable appetite to have/make more. Additionally, employees that can only focus on making the next dollar more will never get past being told “no.” They will always make their next move for more money and more money alone. That in turn will make them happy for the short term, but in another 2-3 years, they will need to move on again.

The best move for Brian is to live and learn. He made the right call – he wasn’t going to be held hostage by giving more money just to retain Roger. Roger was competitively paid and well supported by Brian. As tough as it was for Brian, this breakup was almost inevitable. Brian had to let Roger make his decision and move on. If he didn’t, and gave Roger more money, they would be revisiting that conversation every 6-12 months as the “Roger’s” of the world are always focused on how/why they should/need to be paid more (than everyone else) and they are simply incapable of seeing the bigger picture. At some point in time, the “Roger’s” hopefully reach a level of career maturity whereby they can look at a total employment compensation/experience package and make better (employment) relationship decisions. Until then, the “Roger’s” will continue to cycle through different jobs to make a few bucks more. As I told Brian, sometimes it’s not you…it’s them! Break ups are tough and you need to move on. No amount of relationship evaluation was going to make the Roger situation work out any differently. I advised Brian to broaden his evaluation of the talent on his team. He needed to invest more of his time and energy into development a few key employee simultaneously. Continue to keep the lines of communication open, but know what you are getting into. The break up with Roger could have been predicted based on his past work history. It wasn’t a reason to not hire Roger, but Brian shouldn’t have been surprised when the break up happened. Much like in our personal lives, there are people that struggle to commit, the same applies in the workplace and that is when the break ups occur. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Communication Foundation

The most popular post of all time here on The Armchair HR Manager is my one on “The Art of the Skip Level Meeting.” It is by far and away, the most read and shared post I have ever written. It is so far in front of #2 and #3 it isn’t even funny. I have always wondered why this was, so in order to find out, I decided to engage a bit more with some of my readership that have commented and emailed me in the past. Bottom, line it doesn’t matter whether you work in HR or not, or for a public or private company or for a small local firm or a global conglomerate, communication is an issue EVERYWHERE.

At the end of the day, skip level meetings are needed based on the need for more communication. It isn’t always negative, as skip levels are used to enhance communication, build trust and align staff. All of which brings me to my point of this post. As leaders, we always need to be looking for ways to build upon the communication foundation. Like building a good house, your management practice needs to be built on a solid foundation of communication. In my career, I have always tried to make note of leaders that I have seen exhibiting behaviours that contribute towards establishing proactive communication channels. As such, I wanted to share an example of that with you.

FoundationOne of the best examples of this came from an operations manager I worked with many years ago at a call centre. When Greg (not his real name of course) first started working with us, I thought he was a bit unconventional to say the least – in terms of things he did, said and how he approached employee relations issues. I made it a point to observe his behaviours a bit more before I formulated a real opinion of him. One of the quirkiest things I observed from him (or it seemed quirky at the time) was that during the late afternoons on many days he would appear to be aimlessly walking around the call centre floor drinking coffee. This increased exponentially on Fridays, where it seemed pretty much any time after 1pm, he would spend the better part of 4-5 hours walking around the call centre floor, drinking coffee and sitting down with his feet up and engaging in casual chat with call centre reps. I thought, “Man, this has got to be the laziest call centre manager I have ever seen…what a slacker!”

Perhaps the younger me would have actually said that to him or his boss; however, the (slightly) wiser me decided to dig a bit deeper. I took a look at his teams stats’ – handle time, first call resolution, absenteeism and attrition. They were by far and away some of the best in our entire centre. By now my curiosity had peaked. I started to make it a point to have to “see” Greg about things on Friday afternoons. Sometimes I needed to “discuss” an employee’s attendance, or talk about a particular committee, or something. I tried doing this as he was walking around the floor to see if I could get to the bottom of what was going on.

After a few Friday’s of this, I wasn’t all that much ahead in my detective work, other than to realize that employees tended to approach Greg a lot to talk to him – sometimes about very casual things, but sometimes about work. As the Friday’s went by and I spent more time walking with Greg (checking up on him I guess) more and more of our hundreds of employees got to know me better as well. As weeks went by, I would find myself engaging in similar (sometimes casual) conversations with these reps.

It finally hit me; Greg was a freaking genius! (Apparently I am not). This guy was investing time in building trust and establishing relationships and fostering communication. He was laying the foundation. I started to hang out in his cube/office more to come to find out that his staff came to him on a regular basis. He knew EVERYTHING that was going on with his teams. He knew what they were happy about, mad about, why people were missing time, what the key client issues were, etc. and he didn’t even have to ASK. His people told him everything because he had laid down a foundation built on communication. He was visible to his staff, so when he came to talk to them about things (at first) it was always casual and not about work, and he became seen as being non-threatening. Greg became my model for how to build the proper managerial communication foundation.

In case you are wondering, no, Greg wasn’t a perfect manager (who is?) He overvalued the wrong competencies and characteristics in some people. He was stubborn to a fault about many of his “convictions” when it came to work. But darn it, that guy could build trust and rapport with staff and he could communicate. And you know what, sometimes you just can’t teach that stuff. So now Greg is my “go to” story for managers, especially newer ones, on how they should be building the foundation of communication. I also encourage managers to take advantage of “casual” Fridays, not so much in terms of dress code, but in how you interact with your staff on Friday’s, or any other day of the week that ends with the letter “Y”. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of scottchan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But why are your employees REALLY leaving?

A friend of mine from my university days, who is now running his own tech company, recently reached out to me. He was really struggling with turnover in his organization and wanted some advice on how to “get to the bottom of things.” (No, he doesn’t have an HR department – but that is a separate discussion). This issue of escalating turnover was all new to him because during the growth phase and into the stability phase of the company everyone was excited and engaged and now that the company is more established (going on 10+ years now) he is seeing his voluntary turnover rate rise. Before, he used to pride himself on knowing his employees and what was going on with each and every one of them, much like many hands on entrepreneurs do. However, now that his company is north of 200 people, he can’t quite keep tabs on everyone in the manner in which he was accustomed to.

ExitI asked him if he had any idea as to why they were leaving his company. Mike* (not his real name) told me that he was “pretty sure” it was all about the compensation. Because he is still a smaller development shop (relatively speaking), his larger competitors are able to throw bigger dollars at his people. He felt everyone was happy with the company but it is hard to say no to big pay increases. When I asked Mike what data he had to substantiate his theory, he indicated that he didn’t really have any, other than that is what the employees are telling him (and their managers) when they give their notice. Mike, like many other organizational leads, made the classic mistake of falling for the softest attrition reason that departing employees give you.

When your employees tell you they are leaving, try as you might, managers and leaders take it personally. Employees know that they don’t want to burn any bridges, so the most palatable reason given for leaving is “compensation.” Compensation is tangible and easy to understand. When a manager hears that as the reason for separation, than it is easy to understand and wrap their heads around. It makes sense. There is no emotion attached to it. It is just more money, so who could fault them for that?

Here is the thing, based on my completely unscientific research, nine times out of ten, the primary reason for departure is NOT compensation. This typically only happens when someone is so grossly underpaid – based on internal AND external comparators – that they jump for more money because they feel disrespected.

Typically though, you need to dig deeper. There are several ways to find out why people have left or might be leaving:

1) Exit interviews – conducted by HR, or some other confidential service, can often give you some more tangible data as to the “why’s.” You might need to put on the detective hat and read between the lines a bit, but if done right, there is usually some good information in exit interviews that will give you some insight as the reasons for employee departures. The only problem is that the proverbial horse has left the barn (i.e. your employee is already gone) when you get this information.

2) Stay interviews – similar to the approach with exit interviews, except they are done with employees who are still with your company. Find out why they stay with you or better yet, what might cause them to leave. Ask employees what is working now and what isn’t working. Look for the trends and themes across offices and departments.

3) Employee Pulse Surveys – not so much the surveys themselves, but the focus groups you have afterwards to help comb through the data. Listen to what your staff is telling you. Read between the lines and look for the trends.

4) Coaching sessions and performance reviews – train your managers to truly listen to their staff. Regular coaching sessions are a great opportunity to engage in candid dialogue about how things are going. If, all of a sudden, your coaching sessions take on a more negative tone (coming from the employee) something is amiss. Ask questions and don’t settle for face value responses like, ‘everything is fine.’

5) Talking to people – yes, just casual everyday conversation can quickly give you a feel for the pulse of the company. This is the classic management by wandering around approach. Talk to people in the lunch room or out on the shop floor/operational area. I once had an employee relations manager who used to work for me who always had the latest gossip, news and insight at to what was going on with employees. Her secret – she was a smoker! No, I am not promoting smoking; however, if you have a smoker on your HR team, make sure you are getting the scoop from them because odds are, they are in the know on things!

These are few quick hit ways to get some more insight into the “pulse” of your organization and drivers of dissatisfaction. Regardless of what managers and organizational leaders might think, the REAL top reasons why your people leave are typically things like: (please note – completely unscientific survey alert again):

1) Their Manager – who is either a tyrant, doesn’t support them, is unreasonable to work for, is inflexible, doesn’t provide feedback or is completely apathetic.

2) Poor Communication – from their manager and/or the head of your organization. Perhaps it is a lack of visibility, lack of a clear organizational vision for the future or just plain lack of communication in general about company business. Either way, poor communication leads employees to feel insecure about their jobs and causes them to look elsewhere.

3) No growth and development opportunities – employees who are stifled in their roles and don’t have any opportunity to grow and develop will leave. Companies must be careful not to keep well performing employees in the same role year after year after year just because it works for the company. Employees want to grow, develop and learn. You either provide them the opportunity to do so, or another company will. This also ties in with a lack of feedback from their manager. If managers aren’t providing regular performance feedback to their staff, they will feel like they aren’t being developed as well. In turn, they too will leave because of this.

4) No recognition or rewards – aside from their salary, employees want to feel recognized and rewarded for their work. If organizations fail to recognize good performance (beyond salary increases) and provide effective rewards for exceptional performance, employees will leave. Bottom line, employees want to feel that their company is invested in them and that their performance and discretionary effort is recognized AND rewarded.

So, the next time you start digging into why you are experiencing turnover, you need to ask yourselves, “Why are they REALLY leaving?” Use the above mentioned methods to validate your hypothesis as to the “why.” You may be surprised at the results. Better yet, use the above methods to poke holes in your theory and see if it still applies. That is how you REALLY know why your employees are leaving. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Naypong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Art of the Skip Level Meeting

One of the more effective tools that manager can employ is the use of a skip level meeting. Simply put, a skip level meeting is one where a manager’s manager meets with employees to discuss department concerns, obstacles, opportunities for improvement, etc. with a focus on maintaining and/or improving overall communication. For example, let’s say you have a Manager of Customer Service with 12 direct reports and this manager reports to a Director of Operations. A skip level would involve the Director of Operations meeting with the 12 direct reports of the Manager of Customer Service, without the Manager of Customer Service being present, in effect, “skipping” a level over them.

As mentioned previously, in their purest form, skip levels should be used to either maintain or improve overall communication and build more effective relationships with employees. Skip levels focus on opening and sustaining lines of communication, something which we all can agree is critical to organizational success. However, before going ahead with skip levels, it is important to distinguish what a skip level is (purpose) vs. what it isn’t, when to conduct them and what to discuss.

Skip LevelMost importantly, a skip level meeting is not an opportunity to get “dirt” on a manager. It is not to be used as an opportunity to solicit feedback to put on the manager’s performance review because you have been too lazy to manage them effectively. Treating a skip level this way defeats the whole purpose of the meeting and essentially renders the department level manager redundant and organizationally neutered. In order for skip levels to be effective, there needs to be an environment of trust established – both with the manager of the team and the employees themselves. If, as in the example above, you as the Director of Operations suddenly schedules a skip level meeting, without having spoken to the employees in the months prior, don’t expect them to open up to you! Likewise, don’t expect the manager of these employees to be receptive to the skip level idea either!

If you are conducting a skip level meeting, sit down with the manager of the team first. Explain to them why you are looking to conduct the meeting, what you are going to ask and what you will do with the information you obtain. You need to get the manager’s buy-in; otherwise they will think this is a witch hunt. Ultimately, the goal should be for you provide better coaching to the manager of the department vis-à-vis some of the information you obtain from the skip level. The skip level will also help open up (or keep open) lines of communication with the staff, establish better relationships and allow for a different perspective to be presented and shared. The information you obtain from the skip level can be discussed and shared and through 1:1 coaching, it will allow you to help the department manager be a more effective manager themselves.

Here is a key point – if you, as the manager’s manager, have not had any type of regular contact or visibility with these employees for some time (or at all), you need to start doing that first before holding skip levels. So, get out and walk around, be seen, strike up casual conversations. Do this for several months before scheduling a skip level. Now, assuming that has taken place and you have established some sort of street cred with the staff, you should then make sure to provide an advance communication about the skip levels. Let them know the when/where/what/why in advance. This gives them time to prepare based on the goal(s) of the skip level. It is important you are upfront about the goals – i.e. open/maintain/improve lines of communication, etc.

The types of things you will want to discuss during a skip level meeting with the employees are things like:

  • What works well in the department right now? (i.e. systems, processes, technology, feedback, etc.)
  • What needs improvement and/or what obstacles are preventing them from being successful? (i.e. technology, top level support, more feedback, etc.)
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to START doing right away to be more successful?
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to STOP doing right away to be more successful?
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to make sure we CONTINUE to do in order to be successful?
  • Alternatively, you can ask what they need MORE/LESS of from their manager and yourself in order for them to be successful as a department and in their roles.

Remember, the focus of the skip level meetings always needs to be maintained and feedback kept as objective as possible with a focus on issues NOT people. As the manager’s manager, it is up to you to draw inferences and conclusions from what you obtain in the skip levels and ascertain whether you have people or process issues that need to be addressed. At the conclusion of the skip level, you need to make sure that you follow up with the department manager as soon as possible to discuss the group feedback, what the trends are what the next steps are you both need to take

Just as importantly, if you had takeaways from the skip level, you need to get back to the employees with responses as soon as possible and practicable. This helps cement the trust that has been established, it gives credibility to you and the concept of the skip level and it truly reinforces the intentions of the skip level – to improve communication and build relationships.

What about you? Have you used skip level meetings before? Were they effective? Why did they work or not work? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you want me to be candid or compliant!?

Allow me to paint a picture for you. There is a group of employees sitting around a table. Their manager is at the front of the room “leading” a SWOT analysis of their department as part of the inputs into the organizational annual planning process. The manager indicates to his staff that he is looking for their honest and candid feedback as inputs into the analysis. The employees then begin to provide their individual perspectives and opinions on what the department’s strengths (s), weaknesses (w), opportunities (o) and threats (t) are. The manager, upon hearing what the staff thinks and feels, then begins to override what everyone is telling him. He starts to rationalize and then outright dismiss the feedback from his staff so as to paint a rosier picture of the department SWOT analysis. This ultimately helps him complete the SWOT analysis faster and move on to something else he would rather be doing.

ComplianceDoes this scenario sound familiar? Whether the exercise at hand is a SWOT analysis, business planning session or employee focus group, the manager has attempted to disguise their ultimate communication goal (or end game in this case) from their staff. Whether it is due to the manager’s own insecurity, lack of preparedness or general sociopathic behaviour, they simply do want to hear what their employees’ have to say. Here is the thing, they know that they are ‘supposed ‘ to ask for input and solicit feedback, but they truly do not want to hear and accept the inputs that they receive. The manager is simply going through a check in the box exercise with their staff to show that they have done their job.

Here is the thing, as a manager and as a leader, you either want your employees to be candid with you or not. You can’t ask for them to be candid when your words and actions demonstrate that you are looking for them to be compliant. What managers need to understand is that employees know when their manager truly doesn’t want them to be candid, despite the fact that that is what the manager ‘says.’ Ultimately, this mixed messaging erodes the very fabric of the employee/manager relationship. It completely destroys all credibility and trust that the manager might have had with their employees. At the end of the day, you (as the manager) will be left with a disengaged employee base. Your staff will only do the minimum required to be compliant and keep you off their backs. Is this the type of ‘team’ that you are looking to have?

I have often found that managers exhibit this type of approach when they themselves are doing something that they don’t believe in. For example, say that the organization taps each department head to lead a focus group into improving operational processes. A particular department manager doesn’t believe that the processes need improving, that the processes are needed at all or worse yet, that their employees aren’t switched on enough to provide any value into improving the processes. Regardless, the manager conducts the focus group (because they have to). They dominate the conversation, dismiss the feedback and essentially present their own ideas as that representative of the group. The manager, through their positional influence, has forced the group to be compliant by pushing them into ‘accepting’ their way of thinking while operating under the guise of asking them to be candid. At best, this is a poor management practice that will obviously not build an environment of trust, at worse, it is complete sociopathic behaviour.  For more information on identifying sociopaths in the workplace, I encourage you to read this series my Mike Lehr on his blog.

So, for managers, you need to decide what you want. If you want compliance, don’t waste your staff’s time by asking for their input on things. Just go ahead with whatever response you want to provide or whatever outcome you want. Let your staff focus on something else and don’t waste their time. Understand, however, that you will ultimately only be managing a compliant workforce. One that will have zero loyalty, provide the minimum level of effort required and one that will not offer any discretionary effort.

If you are truly looking to lead, and if you want your employees to be candid with you, than you need to understand that actions speak louder than words. It is your obligation to understand and communicate to them what the ultimate goal is you are looking to achieve. Clearly identify what you are looking for from them (in terms of their being candid) and how this will help the team “win.” Then, step back, allow them to be candid and most importantly, as the manager, you need to listen. Stop talking and just listen to what they are telling you. Facilitate the conversation, ask open ended questions and help guide the dialogue and/or “park” items when needed. I think we can all do a bit of navel gazing in this area to see if our words and actions are driving our employees to be candid or compliant. I hope, as good managers and leaders, you are truly looking for your employees to be candid with you. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Compliance image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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