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Defusing disasters

Preventing work time bombs from exploding

By Elaine Varelas, 03/03/2008

We've all seen a bomb squad either on the news, film, or television. The highly trained team, dressed in full protective gear, rushes in and must defuse a bomb with only minutes on the clock by snipping the red (or is it blue?) wire. It's a high-anxiety situation and the wrong move can cause a massive explosion and sure disaster.

But what about the ticking time bombs at work? There are issues at every organization that may be getting bigger and more dangerous by the day - if they are not defused. While it may be tempting to ignore these problems and hope they go away, they are just as likely to detonate. HR managers need to strap on the combat regalia and tackle these bombs head-on before they blow up and leave the organization vulnerable.

Here are three situations HR managers may encounter at work and what they can do to thwart the disaster. These scenarios may seem harmless on the surface, but they are all bombs just waiting to go off.

Losing an MVP

Almost every organization has at least one MVP. He or she is a senior executive and is the "go to" person for the most important projects and problems. These are the folks who can make things happen – and they have a massive workload to show for it. Like a rubber band, these people can stretch incredibly far, but eventually they will break.

How would your company fare if your MVP was retiring, taking another post, or joining a commune? Consider doing the following:

  • Do a risk assessment – Many HR managers are so busy reveling in the fact that they have MVPs at their organization doing stellar jobs that they don't think about what would happen if those stars left. Who are the MVPs at your company? What would be the worst-case scenario if they left? What is the risk of them leaving? What preventive measures can HR managers take to keep it from happening? And how can you help your organization rebound if it is inevitable?
  • Check in – The best way to get answers to these questions is to ask the MVPs. Take their temperature to see how things are going and whether they are satisfied with their jobs, their performance, and the organization. You won't know how they are feeling unless you ask.
  • Ask the difficult questions – When checking in with your star players, don't just gloss over your intent with a quick, "How's everything going?" You need to dig deeper, state the obvious, and ask the "scary" questions. Most over-achievers won't admit they are overworked and overwhelmed without some prompting. For example, you might say, "You are so valuable to this company, and we really appreciate everything you do. I see that you're working long hours, your commute is atrocious, and you're traveling quite a bit. Are you getting burned out? Is the job taking a toll on your personal life? What can we do to help ease some of your burden?"
  • Have realistic suggestions – While it is admirable to ask your MVPs what you can do to help, you may also want to have some suggestions about how to create a more manageable workload. Can you realistically reduce the travel schedule or delegate some responsibilities to another member of the team? Can the company begin to develop a colleague to assume some of the job?
  • Don't stick your head in the sand! – Many HR managers are afraid to raise these issues because they believe they will be bringing them up for the first time. Avoiding it won't make it go away. If you notice that your MVPs are pulling double duty, they already know it, too. And they are talking about it – just not with you!

Poor succession planning

Now that your MVPs are secured, what about other leaders in the organization? If people leave (or get hit by that proverbial bus), how prepared will your company be? Many businesses have an emergency evacuation plan in case of a natural disaster and a recovery plan for IT issues, but they also need to develop an HR disaster strategy. People retire, take other jobs, move away, and experience illness or personal tragedy. There are many reasons why employees might leave an organization on short notice.

The organization as a whole, as well as each department, should have a plan in place if the #1 person can no longer work. Who will be in charge? Where are the important files? What are the pressing issues facing the team? If we need to recruit, where will we look?

Organizations that do succession planning well keep a current list of alumni who could fill in as consultants on an interim basis. They also keep a fresh networking list from vendors and competitors in case they need to back-fill for positions.

As with most disaster plans, hopefully you will never have to use them. But having a succession plan in place will get the company over the short-term hump and focus on the long-term success of the business.

Letting integrity issues slide

We've all read about the major corporate screw-ups in the papers, like the Enron debacle and Tyco's CEO's transgressions. These cases are black and white: the leadership deceived and cheated their investors, employees, and customers. Most likely, your organization is not participating in such blatant indiscretions. But even small infractions can lead an organization down a slippery slope. In fact, it is the gray areas-little white lies, short-changing customers-that cast doubt on a company's integrity.

HR managers don't have to be the conscience of the organization, but they should create the forum for leaders to have these important discussions. It needs to start at the top and work its way down through the organization. Managers and leaders should treat the business, each other, all employees, vendors, and clients with courtesy and respect.

There are many other examples of bombs that can go off in an organization. By strapping on the appropriate gear and defusing these bombs before they explode, HR managers can keep these work time bombs from wreaking havoc in the organization.

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