Archive for January 2010

The Employee’s First 90 Days: First Impressions of Managers Matter

January 29, 2010

If you took a psychology class in high school or college, odds are you learned about imprinting; i.e., how newly hatched ducks and goslings will become socially bonded to the first moving object they encounter.  This bond seemed to only develop during a brief “critical period” in the first day or so after hatching; if the baby duck missed the opportunity to bond, it was lost forever.

While humans are much more complex, it seems that new hires have a “critical period,” too, particularly when it comes to forming ideas about organizational fairness.  Forty-five percent of employees who decide to voluntarily terminate their employment relationship decide to do during the first ninety days of employment.  In short, they fail to bond.

When new employees are deciding how much to invest in the employment relationship, they use fairness judgments as decision shortcuts.  These fairness judgments form early and quickly in the employment relationship and then are simply accessed, rather than revised, unless there is some clear and substantial indication of change in the relationship.  Thus, it may be assumed that fairness-relevant information has especially strung effects on fairness judgments when it is occurring.  In fact, the first relevant information will exercise the greatest influence on feelings of overall fair treatment.

Experiments that have varied fairness treatment confirm the importance of first interactions.  For example, even though participants received the same number of positive and negative fairness experiences, those who encountered the unfair experience in their relationships with their supervisor viewed the supervisor as much more unfair than did those who encountered the unfair experience later.  It seems that early fairness judgments are especially potent and there is a substantial level of inertia in changing these judgments.

We now know that imprinting occurs in many species, including humans, and that it involves much more plastic and forgiving mechanisms than were initially claimed by Lorenz.  However, the first impression is still a strong one, and savvy human resource executives capitalize on this new hire bonding opportunity by creating a new employee orientation program that is most likely to inspire organizational loyalty and commitment.

New Hire Bonding Strategies

  • Make sure your new hire orientation program lasts at least ninety days.
  • Consider setting up a new-hire mentoring program during which a seasoned employee is available to answer questions, introduce the new hire to his or her peer group, and acquaint him or her with informal networks.
  • If you have a diverse employee base, spend extra time indoctrinating new hires into your corporate culture, instilling corporate values, and getting them involved in social groups.  Companies like Nokia, with 48 countries represented at one location, overcome many of their multicultural challenges by teaching new employees the “Nokian way.”
  • Teach your managers’ interpersonal skills, with a specific emphasis on how to establish performance agreements, mentor and coach new hires, and communicating various career tracts at the outset of employment.

John C. Maxwell of Injoy once said that all leadership is influence.  The first 90 days of an employee’s job offer a manager a unique opportunity to help his/her subordinate bond with the organization, get to know coworkers, and plant the seeds of loyalty and commitment.


How to Burn Out Your Employees during Tough Economic Times

January 26, 2010

I was burned out by the age of 26.  Having completed my doctorate at age 24, I took my first job with a chronically understaffed nonprofit agency.  The boss was a micromanaging maniac whose leadership style was a combination of Death by Meeting and Russian roulette.

In spite of the endless hours we spent in meetings discussing the coffee fund and other trivia, she expected us to keep up with an unrealistic client load and excessive paperwork.  One of her favorite strategies was to randomly pull client files to see if progress notes were up to date (which, because of the mountain of paperwork, rarely were) and then call the unlucky therapist on the carpet.  Within six months, I was questioning my career decision; after two years, I regained my sanity by jumping ship and starting my own practice.

The Predictable Path to Burn Out

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my first job could have been in the dictionary under “job strain.”  According to the popular framework proposed by Karasek in 1990, the perfect storm for job strain is involves how much work we have to do, how much leeway we have to get it done, and how much support we get from others in the workplace.

Karasek’s “job strain” model states that the greatest risk to physical and mental health from stress occurs to workers facing high psychological workload demands or pressures combined with low control or decision latitude in meeting those demands and low workplace social support.  Job demands are defined by questions such as “working very fast,” “working very hard,” and not “enough time to get the job done.” Job decision latitude is defined as both the ability to use skills on the job and the decision-making authority available to the worker.

Dear Manager:  Loosen Up When Times are Tough

An excessive or unrealistic workload is, of course, the first step to burnout.  Employees who feel constant time pressure get worn out so that, over time, it can get harder to do even a normal amount.  Unfortunately, there are times when managers don’t have control over their employees’ workloads; after a layoff, for example, survivors may be inevitably tasked with picking up the slack of departing coworkers.

On the positive side, managers can reduce the stress of a difficult workload by giving their employees say in how their jobs gets done and creating a supportive environment in which to do it.  An employee who feels his or her manager is concerned about his or her welfare, and is trusted to make good decisions, is much more likely to stick through tough times.

The challenge for managers is to deal with their own stress during tough economic times so it doesn’t spill over to their managing.  In other words, don’t tighten the screws when you need to loosen the bolts.

The Equal Opportunity Harasser: Recognizing the Bully in the Office

January 22, 2010


Domestic Violence: Six Steps to a Safe Work Environment

January 20, 2010

Individuals dealing with domestic violence at work can wind up feeling battered themselves by all the competing interests at stake. The employee/victim often looks to the human resource professional as an advocate who provides protection and, if the abuse is interfering with their work, someone who will fight to help them keep the financial independence that is such a critical part of leaving a domestic violence situation.  Senior management has difficulty understanding why human resources is involved in what they perceive to be either a social problem or a personal matter, while the victim’s supervisor wants the employee to do her job – period.

The key to HR’s emotional survival in these stressful situations is to know where and how to marshal available resources so your actions don’t get clouded by the emotions inherent in these situations or the competing interests of those involved.

Here are six ways you can begin to create a culture that promotes safety and respect:

  • Incorporate a specific intimate partner violence clause in your general policies on workplace safety.  Make sure your policy addresses performance issues related to victims of domestic violence, provides accountability for employees who use company property (mail, e-mail, letters, phones) to harass a family or household member, and outlines the rights of domestic violence victims as they relate to the use of company time and resources to handle domestic violence and/or resulting legal issues.
  • Educate senior managers on the critical need for workplace violence prevention training.  Workplace conflict historically escalates during economic downturns, yet few CEOS recognize just how volatile the workplace can be.
  • Coordinate with your legal and security departments to develop workplace safety response plans and provide reasonable means to assist victimized employees in developing and implementing individualized workplace safety strategies.
  • Get the word out.  Post information on domestic violence and available resources in the work site in places where employees can obtain it without having to request it or be seen removing it, such as employee rest rooms, lounge areas, as inserts in employee benefits packages and/or as part of new employee orientation.
  • Train your managers to recognize — to be aware of signs of violence for potential victims and perpetrators. Managers should understand how to respond – to appropriately address changes in behavior that are affecting performance and to stay clear of common pitfalls, such as offering personal advice or attempting to counsel.  Finally, managers should learn to whom to refer – whom to call internally and externally if such a situation arises.
  • Make sure all HR staff is trained to deal with workplace violence issues.  HR professionals are tasked with dealing with violent employee threats, yet, according to a recent SHRM study, few actually receive such training.  Maintain a list of domestic violence services, including: the phone number and description of local domestic violence service providers, employee assistance, if available, and information on how to obtain orders of protection and criminal justice options.

A Win-Win

The significant impact on business – from safety issues to economic considerations – encourages employers to recognize that violence is not someone else’s problem.  Whether employers are acting out of economic self-interest or not, businesses’ recent move toward understanding and dealing with domestic violence spillover at work is a win for everyone.  HR professionals can have a strong influence in persuading senior management to give them – and the rest of the workforce – the training and support they need to deal with potentially violent work situations; there’s nothing like the threat of a lawsuit to get employers to shift a backburner issue to the foreground.  Whether the motive is genuine concern for employee well-being or protection for the bottom line, the positive impact is the same.  Or, as my grandmother used to say, sometimes people do good in spite of themselves.

Why Employees File Harassment Complaints is Not the Same Reason They Sue

January 18, 2010

“What is the number one reason an employee files a sexual harassment complaint?”  I’ve asked this question to over 50,000 managers and employees attending our Professional Conduct Training over the past 20 years and the top two guesses have always been the same – for money and for revenge.  In fact, these answers are so predictable that if I was forced to wager a large amount of money on my ability to predict the answer to one particular question, this might be it.

Of course, putting the relatively small number of false or frivolous complaints aside (3%, according to the EEOC), the real reason most people go to HR with a harassment complaint is to stop offensive behavior.  The money motive or revenge incentive guessed by countless CEOs, VPs, middle managers, and factory workers is a stab at a separate but related puzzle – why people sue.

Don’t Cause Hard Feelings

However, even this puzzle is more complex.  Having served as an expert witness in a number of emotional distress-as-a-result-of-harassment-or-discrimination claims, I can tell you that the neither money nor simple revenge tops the list of any plaintiff I’ve evaluated.

Feelings – not money – drive an employee to the lawyer’s office and into the court system. The vast majority of normal people file charges because they don’t feel valued, respected and listened to.  Perhaps the manager made excuses for the alleged offender or the person conducting the investigation was best friends with the person accused.  Maybe the investigator decided to address a previously undocumented – and unaddressed – performance problem as part of the investigation.  Maybe the person who was accused was never given a chance to tell his side or the story – or was fired just because it seemed safer (even though the investigation was inconclusive).

The Bottom Line

Most people don’t file lawsuits just because a manager told a sexual joke or a coworker kept asking them out over and over again.  They file lawsuits because, after they complain about it, something else happens to them.

When employees are treated unfairly or insensitively, litigation can carry immense psychic and otherwise perceived benefits – to teach the company a lesson, to be taken seriously, etc. Later this week, we’ll look at some scenarios that just beg employees to call an attorney and some preventative strategies employees can take before money becomes the measuring stick of justice.

Employee Satisfaction Linked to Greater Autonomy, Good Work Relationships and a Sense of Competence — Duh!

January 15, 2010

Okay, it’s not rocket science, but it is comforting to find some hard data that supports what we’ve all known for years; people are happier on the weekends.

The study that officially confirmed it tracked the moods of 74 adults who worked at least 30 hours per week. Not surprisingly, workers, even those with interesting, high status jobs experienced better moods, greater vitality, and fewer aches and pains from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, This held true regardless of how many hours they work, how educated they happen to be, or whether they work in the trades, the service industry, or in a professional capacity. They feel better whether they are single, married, living together, divorced, or widowed. And, they feel better regardless of age.

Here’s where it gets a little more interesting.  The researchers set out to find out why this was so.  They found that relative to workdays, weekends were associated with higher levels of freedom and closeness: people reported more often that they were involved in activities of their own choosing and spending time with more intimate friends and family members. They also found that people feel more competent during the weekend than they do at their day-to-day jobs.

Apparently, our well-being depends in large part on meeting our basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  To the extent that our work life affords us a sense of autonomy (for example, by teaching managers how to delegate without abandoning support), relatedness (for instance, by fostering a cooperative rather than competitive work environment and teaching employees how to tactfully resolve conflict) and competence (hiring the right people and investing in employee training and development), well-being may be higher and more stable, rather than regularly rising and falling.

How to Apologize When You’ve Offended Someone

January 13, 2010

In the stress and strain of work, most employees will at some point say or do something we regret.  An employee will say the wrong thing.  A manager may unthinkingly betray a confidence.  The good news is that there are often simple things a manager or coworker can do to repair the relationship.  The first – and often the most effective – is an apology.

How to Apologize and Mean It

  • Make it genuine. – Anyone can spot a backhanded apology and it will do more harm than good. For example, “If I offended you, I apologize” is a fake apology: It’s like stealing someone’s wallet, and saying, “I’m sorry if you felt you were inconvenienced.” A genuine apology is aimed solely at taking responsibility, not implying that the other person is somehow at fault.
  • Know what you’re apologizing for. ‘I’m sorry’ means absolutely nothing if you don’t know what you are apologizing for. If you don’t already know, ask the person.  There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’m sorry” and “I’m sorry I made fun of your new haircut. It was insensitive of me, and I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
    Don’t make excuses – Excuses push the blame onto someone or something else, and it weakens the apology. Sure, a brief explanation may help understanding, but if you are busy explaining why you did what you did, it will start to sound like you aren’t apologizing at all.
  • Back what you say with what you do –An apology is an admittance of wrong-doing, not a free pass to do it again.  In fact, if you can’t commit to changing the action or words you’re apologizing for, don’t apologize.  “Sorry I kept you waiting so long” will be a hollow and ineffective apology if you keep doing it.  You’re better off thanking the other person, “Thanks for your patience. I appreciate it” and taking it from there.
  • Apologize for them, not for you. – The mistake many people make when apologizing is that they expect forgiveness.  This is not about you; it’s about the person you hurt.  Some people will behave indifferently, some will behave coldly, and some will react in a downright hostile way. You can’t get angry or defensive. If the person declines your apology, you have to let it go and realize it’s their prerogative. If you apologized sincerely, you have done all you can do.

Many managers and employees have the genuine fear that they will say something completely innocuous and the next think they know they will be met at the office with notification of a lawsuit against them. My response is always the same.  The best defense is a good offense.  If an employee or manager has built a work relationship build on accountability, trust and respect, the odds that s/he will cross the line with someone is minimal.  And, more importantly, if s/he does, the other person will believe the other person’s explanation because of the positive history they’ve shared.

Remember; apologies don’t change the past.  But, when given with sincerity, they can enlarge the future.