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'I don't want to get anyone in trouble, but...'

Helping employees address workplace issues


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By Eric M. Heath

Why do people keep workplace issues to themselves? Why do HR professionals hear unvoiced complaints for the first time when it's too late to work toward a solution, particularly as employees depart? It's partly because many people don't want to cause trouble, or take on the gamut of workplace risk they associate with voicing concerns.

But it doesn't have to be that way and it shouldn't be. Even employees who see themselves as inarticulate or vulnerable can voice their concerns and expect respectful treatment. There's a strong business case for HR professionals to lead such employees into taking measured, thoughtful, planned action, or to intervene when necessary.

Three scenarios will illustrate appropriate levels of HR response that range from coaching an employee upset with another's behavior, to mentoring a professional, to intervening at what could be very high management levels. In each case the problem is the behavior of another with which an employee is legitimately bothered and for which she has come to HR for help.

Put me in, coach

A supervisor's or colleague's habit of concluding all directions with "You understand?" may seem like a small thing, but to an employee who hears it many times each day it may become a peeve, an inferred insult, and oppressive. The HR professional to whom this issue is brought may best address it by coaching the aggrieved employee to approach the offender face-to-face. That's important, because in-person conversations inspire resolution in the here and now. The troubled employee is working toward resolution, not confrontation, so an ambush is not okay.

The HR professional should coach her to ask for a few minutes of her supervisor's time to talk confidentially. She should step outside or away from others if there is a large open space in which to talk. This will look and feel like any other business conversation and won't put either of them on the spot, and it's important not to put the offending person on the spot just now. His trust and help are needed. This is just two people working out a problem, something they each do a hundred times a day.

The HR coach can help her practice what she will say, focusing on how she feels about the offending behavior. People generally respond when asked for help and this may be a legitimate approach for her to take. If all goes well, the offended employee will address the situation successfully head-on, not headstrong. Both parties may emerge with a stronger professional bond. But she should be warned against leveling an accusation. Putting people on the defensive does not lead to a fix, but to an excuse.

Mentor needed

Often, an employee will describe to HR a dysfunctional behavior exhibited by a subject matter expert, a manager from another business unit, or someone like a corporate trainer who enters keystrokes for her when she seems confused in software training, or who interrupts questions with uninformed answers. These behaviors inhibit the transfer of knowledge and can destroy the productivity sought.

In this case, HR can take on a consulting and then a mentoring role. The most basic environmental scan will determine whether or not the complaint is bona fide and the behaviors prevalent. If so, the HR pro can observe training in order to apply first-hand knowledge to the issue, or simply approach as a peer-to-peer consultant.

Inquire of the professional presenter about the transfer of knowledge: how successful does he perceive it to be? Can he give examples? His answers will likely demonstrate the very issues raised and he may even recognize them in himself. The HR pro can even mirror his presentation for him in a role-play, allowing him insight he may not have previously had. Handled well, the presenter will eliminate counterproductive behaviors through self-awareness. But if handled poorly, he will emerge with a sense that his destructive approach has been blessed by HR.

Using your status as a business partner

Among the most insidious complaints that HR can hear is one in which an employee claims a colleague is taking credit for her accomplishments. HR may already have the offender's number on this one - he's probably well-known. The coaching approach could work in this situation if the aggrieved employee has some experience handling difficult situations. Mentoring could be considered, but the offender has motivation issues that may preclude that approach. More likely it will take HR's knowledge of what's going on in the organization, its reporting lines, and its cultivated voice of authority, ie, the HR professional's role as a business partner.

Start by verifying the issue. Authority is squandered when it's spent on bad information. With this in mind, HR can approach the management peer responsible for the project or initiative in question. Begin with an inquiry about the project, even congratulations for the accomplishment, then introduce your concern that so-and-so did some valuable work on the project and that it's in everyone's interests to acknowledge that and express gratitude. That alone may flush the pretender out of the woods, but it's a positive approach, not a negative one - focusing on the true contributor. And it's an approach that requires a reputation for acting in the informed interests of the organization. If the situation requires more direct words, it is that reputation which gives the HR pro the standing to be heard.

Assess what's been accomplished

In these three scenarios, the HR professional has applied the diverse roles of their profession, coaching or mentoring employees to recognize and resolve issues within their control. In the most egregious case they have exercised their responsibilities and standing as a business partner to champion organizational goodwill.

Finally - and here's the business case - they have recognized that organizational efficiency grows in part from interpersonal efficiency. So much time, talent and angst get tied up in third parties sorting out interpersonal problems that hard-won operational efficiencies can be completely undone and their effects lost. By using the right tool from the HR toolkit, you, the HR professional, can safeguard and foster productivity for your organization.

Eric M. Heath, SPHR, is Vice President for Human Resources at East Boston Savings Bank. He is a NEHRA and SHRM member. He can be reached at eheath@ebsb.com.

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