Many of us have uttered those very words. Something happened, a single event with a single employee, and suddenly we need a new policy. What causes that to happen? Most often it is fear. Fear by a leader to confront a single situation without some type of policy or regulation to base it on. Why are leaders afraid and what causes them to run to HR every time they have an employee behavior problem either seeking a policy or wanting HR to handle the problem for them? Most often because they never learned how to address these types of issues on their own. Perhaps they felt they were not empowered, perhaps they wrongfully believed that anything they do must be covered by policy, regulation or law.
The bottom line is simply this…they lack the skills necessary to address the issue in an appropriate manner. There are several ways this can be handled. One is the direct confrontation – “John, don’t you ever do that again or you are fired.” Effective in that you got Johns attention. Ineffective in that you solved nothing, John may have no clue what he did wrong, and no path for correction is identified. Another direction is to ignore it and hope it goes away.
Many managers use an avoidance strategy in the absence of policy, law or regulation for the specific act. A more appropriate process is ask yourself the following questions:
What exactly is the employee doing wrong or that you do not like?
Does this have a business purpose?
Is there a better or different way?
Can I explain that well?
Does this need an outside opinion?
If after clearly identifying the problem you determine that the problem and solution clearly have a business application, you know a better way, that you can articulate the response well and you don’t need an outside opinion, the solution is obvious; do it. But what if you aren’t sure how to word the explanation? What if you are afraid to approach the employee? Generally, the solution to both questions is the same thing…articulating your concern, with an appropriate solution, in a respectful manner solves almost everything. The only exception to this is when the risk of death or injury is present. Then you have to act quickly and do not necessarily have time to worry about anything other than stopping the behavior or action immediately.
How should your response be delivered? Let’s look at 3 examples with the same situation. Carol comes into work on an assembly line. She is wearing a long sleeve shirt, pants, and nylon athletic shoes. The shoes have long laces that Carol lets drag on the ground as that is the current style. Your company dress code says employees on the assembly line must wear long sleeve shirts, pants, and sturdy shoes. You are concerned that Carol’s choice of shoes could be a safety risk dues to a possible dropped object or tripping over the laces. What do you do?
Solution 1: Shout across the work area “Carol, go home and change your shoes, those are not appropriate”
Solution 2: Shout across the work area “Carol, how many times do I have to tell you to tie your shoes?”
Solution 3: Ask Carol to step away from the workstation and take her to someplace with privacy. Explain your concern to Carol, “Carol, I see you are wearing Nylon Athletic shoes and you aren’t tying them. At a minimum, you have to tie those laces. You could trip and get injured and no one wants that? Do you see the problem, Carol?” Once Carol acknowledges the issue you can address the shoes themselves, remember though you should have a business reason. “Carol, I know policy only says sturdy shoes are required but I would like for you to consider what you are wearing as not appropriate for the assembly line. Heavy objects could fall and land on your feet, sparks from tools could burn a hole through the shoe and as a result, burn you, several things can happen. I don’t want you to get hurt. Could you please wear a more appropriate work shoe?”
Obviously, Solution 3 would be the preferred one. Now we can go on with solution 3 to cover many other workplace leadership issues but the bottom line for this one is:
1. You corrected the employee privately and not in front of her peers.
2. You were specific and respectful in your description of the problem.
3. You obtained agreement that a problem existed.
4. You gave a solution with a reason why.
5. You didn’t go to HR requesting a new policy because you couldn’t use your discretion in addressing a workplace issue.
While that solution seems obvious many leaders have never experienced that in their development either through relationships with their own bosses over time or through education. The real role of HR and leadership in situations like this is to:
1. Coach the leader through the immediate problem
2. Help the leader develop the skills needed to repeat what they have just learned in future situations
3. Determine if this is an individual or group-wide issue.
4. If this impacts the leadership team in multiple examples, train and develop the skills needed.
Leadership skills are normally not intuitive. They have to be taught and developed. Taking the time to do this will ensure that decision-making skills drive performance more rapidly and that the workplace functions more efficiently. It also saves a lot of time by not developing or trying to develop all-inclusive policies.