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The Best Legal Advice I Ever Received

Before I get into the guts of this post, keep in mind that this is a human resources and leadership focused blog and is not mean to convey legal advice of any kind. Think of it as one person sharing their experience in the jungle of human resources! With that being said, as HR Professionals (and depending on the industry in which we work) we often have cause to interact with employment law lawyers…sometimes on a regular basis. I remember back in my heyday of working in the call centre industry, I think I had our outside counsel on speed dial!

write-a-chequeHaving said that, I have had an opportunity to deal with a myriad of (potential) legal cases during my career: some of which were driven by the (ex) employee and some that were probably driven by the employer side. Regardless, I have seen it all from the dismissal side: attendance/absenteeism, tardiness, harassment, performance, conduct of all types, etc. Here is the challenge on the employer side, unless there is something so blatant and so egregious, it isn’t a simple matter of terminating an employee for cause. I have had this discussion with managers a million times during my career. I always end up asking the same questions:

Did you have a conversation with the employee to address the issue?

Why not?

When you did, did you document it?

Did you follow up with them the next time “it” happened?

Why not?

Did you address it the “next” time?

Did you document it?

Did they know their employment was in jeopardy?

The list goes on, but this is pretty typical. You see, most managers just want the employee problem to go away. Whatever the “problem” is, they just want it gone. Chronically absent or late employee? Make them go away! Underperforming employee? Make them go away! Difficult to get along with and/or co-workers can’t stand them? Make them go away!

Managers don’t want to deal with this stuff, despite how much you might coach and prepare them. They have a ton of pressure on them to deliver product, goals, service, etc. with understaffed departments, so the last thing they want to deal with is the stuff above. Most HR Pros try to coach the manager through the situation. They coach them on how to have the proper conversations, how to document, how to provide the right warnings, etc. Here is the thing; 99 times out of 100 the outcome is inevitable! The manager will simply comply for a while so that they can finally get you to support them in a termination decision!

Having worked through many difficult, complex employee relations situations, I always default back to the stance of whether or not the manager truly wants to ‘save’ the employee and/or if the employee wants to be saved. All of which brings me to the best legal advice I ever received from outside counsel years ago. Their advice was this, “If you think (HR/the manager), after all this documentation and counselling, the end result is ultimately going to be termination, then just write them (the employee) a cheque…it is far easier, less complex and less time consuming.”

Think about that, how much easier and less complex would our lives be if we followed that approach! No more charades or games. No more managers pretending to try and want to ‘save’ an employee and no more employees pretending that they want to be ‘saved.’ We could all just cut to the chase and solve things with some dollars!

Yes, I am being a bit facetious here; however, the point is this – let’s stop wasting time and effort. Many managers, when they hear that they could make a problem go away for $10 – $30K are often all ears. Then, reality sets in when they realize that comes off their bottom and/or there is no budget or special fund for that sort of thing! Often, at this point, the conversation turns back to how effectively manager the employee (which is where things probably broke down in the first place!)

Here is the thing, when you think about it, when you have a seriously underperforming employee or a conduct issue, $10K to make the problem go away isn’t much, especially when you are a $50M or $100M+ company! So, the next time you are dealing with one of these types of issues ask yourself (and the manager), are you TRULY COMMITTED to improving this situation? If so, then I am a big proponent in the coaching/performance management approach. If the answer is NO…then write a cheque.

Drops mic…

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of CarbonNYC/Flickr.com

Leadership Secret #9

I don’t know why I picked this as secret #9.  It was a completely arbitrary number but it is my blog so I can pick whatever number I want I guess!  As well, this really isn’t even a secret but more like a tip.  Stay tuned, but first a bit of preamble.

SecretIn my experience and role as an HR Pro I have been fortunate to have worked with some great leaders and managers and some not so great leaders and managers.  The great ones help you drive your organization forward and grow. The not so great ones, well, let’s just say I have learned a ton from them as I have built my experience as an HR Pro.

Often I am asked by managers and leaders (both within and external to organizations I have worked for) to provide tips, tricks, secrets on how to be a better manager or leader.  When I reflect on the good and not so good advice I have given over the years, one thing stands out.  That is, one of the key secrets to being a better manager is to TALK TO YOUR PEOPLE.  Yup, that is where it all starts.  There is no magic, no secret sauce.  It all starts with dialogue.  If you simply make time in your day to talk to your people – in the beginning it doesn’t even matter about what – you will be in the top 5% of all managers.  (In the spirit of Tim Sackett quantitative data science, I simply made that up).

It is UNBELIEVEABLE the number of managers who go day in and day out without talking to their employees.  They are too busy being in meetings, on the phone, or “producing ” something.  The other one I hear all the time is the concept of a “working manager.”  That is, when the manager is responsible for a threshold of billable hours – usually north of 50%.  Which means, at most, they spend half their time on their people…and we all know how that story ends.

So, if you want to get out of the blocks as a better manager, start to talk to your people.  Walk the shop floor at the beginning and end of the day.  Carve out 30 mins a day to spend 5-10 minutes with each of your folks.  Start by asking them what is happening that is impacting their ability to do their job effectively.  You would be amazed at what that little conversation starter can do!

Here is the thing – you need to be sincere.  You have to want to do this.  You need to care.  You need to want to help your employees be better and do better.  If you are not genuine in your approach, they will see right through this…and you probably shouldn’t be a manager to begin with. So, starting tomorrow, when you get to work, talk to your folks.  About anything.  Right away.  Right now.  No exceptions.  No excuses.  No pass throughs.  As well, this really isn’t a secret so feel free to pass this on to anyone.  Your employees will thank you for it.  As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com/London Scout

Focus on your SOB’s!

This title may be a bit misleading but it is great for marketing purposes! Traditional thinking is that, as a manager, you need to shift your focus and spend more of your time and energy focusing on your best people, so I can see why you would be confused if I am now telling you to focus on your SOB’s! I know what you are thinking – “but Scott, that isn’t what I call my poor performers! I can’t say that, I will get in trouble with HR!” I am sure you have other code names for them…but I digress.

Angry ManNo, in this case the SOB’s I want you to focus on are Specific, Observable, Behaviours. One of the biggest management challenges I see is the lack of feedback and performance based discussions that take place between a manager and their employees. Far too many managers and employees are quick to complain about their organization’s performance management system (justifiably so in most cases) as the source of all evil, when in fact, because the front end coaching and communication between manager and employee is so non-existent, the root cause lies there.

We tend to not equip our managers with the proper tools to actually communicate with and coach employees. They get bogged down in process, forms, compliance, complicated goals and objectives and pie in the sky metrics. The reality is that everything starts with having a conversation with your employees. Simply put, employees want and need feedback on their performance and the easiest way to do this is to focus on what you are observing (good or bad) as far as their behaviours and outcomes go. This generates conversation which leads to a coaching opportunity.

I am a firm believer in focusing on HOW work is done more so then so then WHAT work is done. I believe that if you have employees with the right approach to completing their work, you can always train them on skills gaps. Alternatively, you may have someone who delivers work of the highest quality; however, they are a complete a**hole to deal with and leave a trail of bodies behind them every day. This type of person is toxic and should not be in your organization – but that is a post for another day.

For most of us, we deal with folks who are somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum. Most of the time they display the right approach to work and most of the time they deliver. Focusing on the specific behaviours you want to see is how you get your people going in the right direction – all of the time. Talk to them about HOW their work (goals) gets done (completed). Identify WHAT you want to see from them. Communicate and coach them on these behaviours. Coach up when they are demonstrating things you do not want to see. Coach for reinforcement when they display what you want to see.

When coaching, give examples – be SPECIFIC. Employees need to know EXACTLY what they are doing well and where they need to improve. The key to this is to identify, in advance, what successes looks like for that employee in that role. That is, as the manager, you need to identify what behaviours you want to see and outline what that looks like (success) – this way, the employee has a clear idea as to what the expected outcomes are and there won’t be any surprises when they receive feedback from you. Essentially, the pre-determined behavioural outcomes become your anchoring statements every time you coach. That is, you are always referring back to these as the game plan and deviations from the game plan are rooted in the coaching conversations you have with your staff.

So, if you are looking to simplify your coaching conversations with your staff, remember to focus on the SOB’s – Specific Observable Behaviours. With an acronym like that, you won’t ever forget! As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. Best of luck dealing with your SOB’s!

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/imagerymajestic

The Art of the Skip Level – Redux

The #1 most read post on The Armchair HR Manager is “The Art of the Skip Level” from July 2014. It has had over 10,000 views on my website along with almost 18,000 views on LinkedIn. For little old me, those are some pretty good numbers!

Skipping Businessman

The best part about the post is the amount of comments, interaction and engagement I have had with my readers. I truly enjoyed the exchange of questions and ideas. To that extent, I have had so many questions and comments that I figured a follow up post on the subject matter would be appropriate. So, what I am providing now are some other key points to consider before and after you conduct a skip level meeting:

  1. How do I get the manager who is being “skipped” onside with this? Conversation is critical here. It is important to set the proper tone and let the manager know in advance how information that is gleaned from the skip level will be shared (with them) and actioned (when/where appropriate.) Involve the manager in the process because if you alienate them, the trust will be eroded. This part is really tough – I am not going to lie! Be upfront with them about the “why’s” in terms of why you are doing the skip level. You need to talk to them well in advance of conducting the skip level meeting. Often you can position the skip levels with a continuous improvement and/or employee engagement approach in mind. As well, you need to let the manager know that the skip levels are NOT going to be performance impacting. They are to be used as information gathering that will help you as their manager do a better job of coaching, developing and supporting them.
  2. To share or not to share, that is the question: My readership has often asked me if they should share the questions in advance that they are going to ask at a skip level. There are several things to consider with this question, beginning with, should you share with the employees and should you share with the manager who is being “skipped.” First and foremost, if you do in fact have a planned series of questions you want to ask (always a good idea) you need to share these with the manager being skipped. This will help alleviate a lot of the stress and anxiety they will likely be feeling, especially the first time you conduct a skip level. As well, it will help build trust with them as they will clearly see that there is nothing being “hidden.” The next consideration is whether or not you should share in advance with the employees that will be attending. The answer, as with all things HR, is that “it depends.” If the questions are going to be time consuming to read/understand, then yes, give them time in advance to read and contemplate. If you want the session to be fairly formal, and typically larger groups need more structure and formality in order to keep on track, then you should share the questions in advance. However, if your group is smaller and will lend itself to be more conversational in nature, there really isn’t a need to share the questions in advance. What is most important is that you focus on the “pulse” of things and let the conversation be a bit fluid; remember, it is all about creating dialogue.
  3. What is the most important thing to consider with regards to the employees AFTER the skip level is done? The single most important consideration with the employees is that you need to follow up with them, in relatively short order, with regards to what you are going to do in response to the information you received during the skip level and/or follow up with what you are going to do differently as a result of the skip level. You can’t commit to responding to everything, but you have to follow up with something, otherwise they will feel they wasted their time talking to you. It could even be as simple as committing to providing the generalized feedback to the manager within 1 week of the skip level being completed and letting employees know you will use the information to work with the manager to help improve BLANK at the workplace. Get some quick, easy wins out of things first. This builds credibility.
  4. What is the most important thing to consider with regards to the manager being skipped after the skip level is done? With regards to the manager, you need to follow up with them re. how the meeting went. If you picked up on some general themes (positive or negative) you need to have a discussion with them soonest. You have to remember, all that your manager is going to be doing, until they hear from you about the meeting, is THINKING about what might have been said at the meeting. They will want to know what was said, discussed, committed to, etc. You owe it to the manager to NOT leave them hanging.
  5. How do I avoid having done a skip level meeting not look like a “witch hunt”? The easiest and most effective way to avoid this scenario is to make conducting skip levels a regular event. If you only do them when something appears to be wrong (i.e. complaint driven, bad employee survey, etc.) then the manager being skipped will always feel like you are out to get them and won’t trust the process. However, if you do them on a regular basis (and regular can be the last Friday of every 4th month), then employees and your manager(s) will come to expect them as part of your regular feedback and improvement process. In other words, it will just be part of a regular day at the office.

Armed with this information, along with the information from the original post, you should be in great shape, pre and post skip level meeting, to utilize skip levels as a communication and improvement tool . Be open, honest and candid with your manager(s) and their employees. If you aren’t, no one will trust you or the process. If they don’t trust, you are wasting your time. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Daily Management = Daily Investments

At the Armchair HR Manager, I blog a lot about management, leadership and all things human resources. I receive a lot of great comments and feedback from the awesome folks that take time to read my posts. One of the themes that has come back from my readership is that they are looking for a quick hit list of things that managers should or shouldn’t be doing. This request has come from both inexperienced and experienced managers as well as HR folks.

Daily Investments

Essentially, they want to know what the keys are to being a successful manager. While there is no secret sauce, there are things that managers should be doing DAILY if they want to be successful in their jobs. In fact, the bulk of this list is comprised from my own observations and experiences in dealing with folks that I would call the very best managers and leaders – across a variety of industries. The managers that do the things on the list below are the ones that don’t need to come to HR to deal with replacing people who have left via turnover, or they don’t have to deal with low employee survey scores or better yet, they are able to spend time leading and developing their people as opposed to constantly managing the bottom 20% of their department.

I recommend that if you want to be considered to be a “good” manager (I didn’t even say great), you need to start doing the following things – DAILY. The key is that all of these activities are an investment in your management portfolio. Over time, you will see the results of all these daily managerial investments pay off in the form of a higher performing team – one that has lower turnover, higher levels of engagement and increased levels of productivity/service performance.

  1. Talk to your employees – Yes, it seems obvious but it must be stated. Set aside time to talk to them every day about something, preferably not work related. Find out how their family is doing, what they did on the weekend, how their bowling team is doing, etc. Be genuine, be sincere, be interested and be present.
  2. Observe – be present and available. Watch how your team works and interacts together. Get a feel for the pulse of the group and how in synch they are or are not.
  3. Provide feedback to your employees – this is different than talking to them. This is about observing their performance on the job and then identifying areas that they are being successful in and areas they need to focus on improving. Bonus – this will make your performance review process a lot easier!
  4. Coach – because you have been providing feedback, you also need to coach. Coach on how to improve, coach on how to maintain/sustain and coach for future success – model the way. Keep in mind, good coaching always involves good listening. Make sure you keep that in mind when coaching.
  5. Recognize – find a way to recognize at least one employee every day. Know what works for each employee, but find a way to say “thanks” each day. It really isn’t that hard, but you have to make time to do it. Recognition and thank you’s are small investments that pay off BIG TIME down the road. No matter what they say, everyone likes to be recognized for what they do and everyone likes to hear a sincere “thank you.”
  6. Decide – another one that goes a long way. Most decisions that need to be made can be made without the formation of a standing committee or gathering together the Senate. Simple yes/no decisions can and should be made by the manager. Regardless of whether the answer is favourable to the employee or not, they will appreciate decisiveness. If you can’t make decisions, maybe shouldn’t be a manager? If you are not enabled to make decisions, then you have an organizational/sr. leadership issue.
  7. Provide clarity – make sure your staff understands their role, goals, objectives and measurements for success. If you need to reinforce this and/or tie it in with their daily work and outcomes as it pertains to these measurements then do so. Make the connection for your staff so that they understand your expectations and how they will be measured.
  8. Finally, make sure you spend more time doing all these things with your best performers. Nothing causes a manager to lose the respect of his/her team more than those that spend 80% of their time with the bottom 20% of the employees and believe me, your staff know who the bottom 20% are. Don’t reward poor performance with the gift of your time and attention.

What do you think? Is there anything missing off of this daily management list? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

One of the most challenging aspects of our jobs as leaders and managers is to provide feedback to our employees. As HR Pros, the challenge is often more difficult as we are often called upon to enable feedback when the employee doesn’t even report to us. Quite often, we are even coaching a manager on how to have the feedback conversation with their employee, or better yet, employees often come to us for “feedback” because they aren’t getting it from their manager or they want a “neutral” perspective.

You cant handle the truthRegardless, as leaders, providing candid feedback to our employees is a huge responsibility that we have, one that must be exercised with care, deliberation and foresight. The approach you take quite often depends on how well you know the employee that is either asking for and/or needs the feedback. The most important thing to consider, above all else, is that you must always tell the truth. HOW you deliver the truth is where the real art form comes in to play as a leader.

The other little secret I will let you in on when an employee asks for your feedback about their performance, etc. and they tell you they want the truth, is that the reality is that most employees can’t handle truth. Therefore, you need to truly understand the situation you are dealing with because you may be in for an explosive confrontation if not handled correctly. So, with all things leadership, it comes down to knowing your employee(s).

Sometimes the truth must be delivered in a very delicate fashion and sometimes you can go ahead and hit someone over the head with it. Everything comes down to relationships and how much trust you have built with the person asking for/needing the feedback. As I already mentioned, the reality is that most people can’t handle the truth when it comes to feedback. Even if the employee is a top performer, if you give them feedback on some things they need to improve/focus on, they probably won’t be able to handle everything you tell them. Let’s face it – the truth usually hurts. Star performers like to think they are star performers in all areas and poor performers don’t want someone to point where they are falling short because they probably already know where they are failing and don’t want to be reminded!

For the rest of your employees, hearing the truth often hurts. As human beings we don’t want to be reminded of our flaws and shortcomings. Many of us have spouses that remind us of those, so we don’t want to hear about it at work! But seriously, having these types of conversations are difficult at the best of times and it takes an awesome leader and coach to engage their staff in truthful feedback conversations.

So, what are the keys to success?

  1. Build effective relationships with your staff. Get to know them better – what makes them tick? What motivates them? Talk to them on a regular basis – including about non work stuff. It makes the hard conversations easier to have if you do this.
  2. Know the employee and what they can handle/accept. You will get a feel for this simply by the fact that you talk to them every day. (See point #1)
  3. Ease into the feedback conversations. Maybe you need to address three or four things with them, so start by talking about one thing only at the first meeting. If your first conversation is about giving them feedback in multiple areas, they are going to leave the meeting with you feeling like they just went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson!
  4. Focus on building trust. As a leader, you play a role in this. Provide support to the employee where they need it and follow up with them/check in as you have promised. The quickest way to lose credibility (and trust) with your staff is to give them feedback, tell them you will meet again in a week or two to discuss progress and then they never hear from you again. Worse yet, you parachute back in several months later to meet with them about more areas they need to improve on or to tell them that they have not made any improvements. Not cool! Of course they won’t be able to handle the truth because they don’t trust you!

Bottom line – giving and receiving feedback is hard. A lot of us can’t handle the truth. As much as I try and tell my wife that I can deal with whatever reason she is mad at me, the truth is, when she does tell me, it stings! We are all humans and have feelings. So take great care and accept the major responsibility you have as a leader when talking to your people. Respect the fact that they are human beings when you are delivering feedback to them. Focus on building relationships built on respect and trust – it will make these types of conversations much easier to have. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Start, Stop, Continue

I recently spoke at a professional engineering conference on the topic of performance management. The gist of my presentation focused on providing technical managers with practical tips, tools and suggestions to help them better manage employee performance while aligning with organizational and departmental goals. The session ended being quite interactive and of course, the “best” questions came after I was done presenting when many folks wanted to ask specific questions that pertained to their role and their business.

Start StopHere is what I learned or at least what was reconfirmed for me after speaking with the attendees – almost everyone struggles with managing employee performance in some capacity or another. For some, it is the struggle to have the difficult conversations and/or to deal with the performance feedback they receive from their employees. For others, it is dealing with a lack of organizational support when it comes to communicating goals and holding staff accountable.

Here is the real interesting part, while I provided the audience with several tools and tips to manage performance while focusing a lot of goal alignment (organization – departmental – individual) there was still something missing. What I found out, while interacting with the audience, is that there is still a very real struggle to simply talk to employees about basic elements of performance – whether or not you have goal alignment, performance management tools or feedback training. The bottom line is that for many of these managers, it is a constant struggle just to initially engage in a conversation with staff to talk about performance, all of which is exacerbated if there is a lack of organizational commitment to performance management and goal alignment.

So, in order to make sure that my audience left the presentation still feeling good about their ability to tackle managing performance, I had to dig down real deep in the old HR tool box to give them something tangible they could walk away with and apply on the job. One of the best conversation starters/trust building activities I learned in my career is the Start, Stop, Continue discussion. Not sure where I learned this from so my apologies to the creator of it; however, it is a fantastic way to start discussions with employees.

You see, effective employee conversations are all predicated on trust. Employees need to trust in the feedback that you are giving, trust that you will keep your word and trust that you will support them in helping them to grow and develop. Hence, the Start, Stop, Continue meeting (SSC for short), is a great way to get the ball rolling in this area. Essentially, you have to start by having regular dialogue with your staff. This way, having 1:1 discussions with employees is just a regular part of how you do business and it doesn’t just occur when someone has screwed up! Assuming this has taken place, and in order to transition into a SSC discussion, your dialogue should go something like this:

“Sue, my goal is to make this department (more) effective – one in which employees want to contribute and are rewarded for their performance. In order to do this, I need input from you and all the other employees. So here is my question to you: in order to help you be more effective in your role and contribute to the team success, what is one thing that we, as a department, need to START doing immediately, what is one thing we need to STOP doing immediately and what is one thing we need to make sure we CONTINUE doing?”

Regardless of where you are as a team or organization in the performance management maturity model, you can always have these types of discussions with your employees. They open up lines of communication, build trust and enhance your credibility as a leader. Now, there is one important caveat to all of this – you have to follow through on the fixes. If the START or STOP items are things you can control or do, then you have to follow through. Otherwise, there will be no trust established and future conversations with you will be seen as a waste of time. Focus on the controllables, (not large organizational things that are beyond your scope) smaller, more tactical items that are geared towards making employees’ jobs, lives and expected performance easier to deliver on. By doing this, you will be able to better transition into more effective performance dialogue with your employees. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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