Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Presents and Presence - Holidays and Your Team

As you approach the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, many a manager doesn't think at all about the potential cluster fuck of the winter holidays to come.

The largest percentage of religious belief in the US is Christian, so Christmas and all it's trappings bombard everyone (Christian, Atheist, Jewish, etc.), usually starting after Halloween, but seriously moving into overdrive after Thanksgiving.

This leads to:

1) Folks who do not buy into the holiday or do not observe it being in a different head space than others
2) Statistically higher levels of depression this time of year (regardless of belief, both because of the expected "family" behaviors and the fact that its pretty dark all the time
3) An otherwise dependable work force disappearing to the four winds at random times, often all at the same time.
4) Issues around holiday parties, gift exchanges, decoration, etc. in the work place
5) Workflow issues--trying to find work for folks who remain behind while 2/3rds of the rest of the company is on vacation...you know, the 2/3rds that contains the folks that the remaining folks need to talk to in order to do their work?

My recommendations for addressing these issues are as follows:

--Have a thirty minute or less group meeting in a room that you have reserved for an hour. In this meeting, get promises of time off reports in to you by end of day, end of the week, whatever. Bring up gently that not everyone celebrates the holidays the same way, and ask people to be kind to each other this time of year about their religious or non-religious views. Ask the team to send you suggestions of how you can all celebrate something together, as a team, that has no specific religious affiliations but is fun and bonding and, most importantly, involves being paid to do something fun while on the clock. Take questions from the crowd. Finally, let folks know you'll be here for the rest of the hour if they wish to discuss anything or have any questions they don't feel comfortable raising in the group.

--Get people to commit to the time they will be out (or are likely to be out) by the first week of December, if possible.

--Post who will be out and when on a public calendar--if this means a white board in the area where your team works or the calendar function in Sharepoint (or any other option), have it publicly available where everyone will be. This will help a lot in letting people answer their own questions about when and where their co-workers are.

--After the meeting, drift around and talk to members of the team about a winter celebration. In one-on-ones, get the ideas of what they really don't want to see in such a celebration, as well as what they do. Also fish around for dates that the most number of your team will be present.

--Talk to the folks leaving during the time frame and establish deliverables to be handed off to team members who are remaining. Work with the project manager (or any other group dependent on your team), letting them know about the deliverables, where they are going, when they are going, and the overall vacation time for your staff. For those who remain, make sure that even if they don't get the deliverables they are promised, that they have a backlog of tasks on which they can work, either with other folks remaining and/or on their own. If you, too, are leaving for the holidays, make sure that you have someone "in charge" while you're gone to help make decisions...such as when to call you at home for help. Leave your contact information with the team, as well, when you're out.

--Encourage your team to decorate their space; I like to pick up a bunch of stuff from the dollar store that is basically snow, snow man, moon, stars, santas, icicles, etc. related. Non-denominational stuff. No angels, no crosses, and stars that are clearly non-denominational. If people are okay with it, I'll get each one an ornament as a present and bring in a tree, then we'll take an hour meeting and decorate it with each of their ornaments plus whatever else I've got.

One year, when working on projects for a company that produced Dungeons and Dragons, I got all fairy, dragons, knights, magic users, etc., with which to decorate the tree.

If they aren't okay with a tree (or your company is not), feel free to get fake garlands from the craft store and let folks use them in their cubes and hang whatever you've brought in their cubes with their ornaments. Holiday lights are ALWAYS popular with teams (though not always with facilities--so check before you get them).

Wreaths are also pretty easy to make and non-denominational--purchase a fake fir wreath from the craft store, wrap ribbon around it with a bow, and tie on small ornaments that reflect your team or company. Hang on cube wall or office door.

--After getting input about what they'd like to do as a team, do it. If that's going to lunch as a team, do that. If it's secret Santa, arrange that. I have had the most success with White Elephant parties, provided that the rules of the gifts are very specific: must be under $10, must not be anything that HR would put in your permanent file about, no explosives, etc. As the presents come in, stack them--if you have a tree, put them under the tree. Anticipation of the event is as much fun for some as the event itself.

You are the manager, so manage the event when it happens; that may mean making reservations at a suitable restaurant for all the food requirements of your team. That may mean enforcing the rules of a White Elephant gift exchange. That might mean booking a room for a gift exchange (secret Santa or otherwise). It also means bringing extra presents in case some folks forget, or in case someone's secret Santa is unclear on the concept--the "bad" gift can be whisked away and a new one left in its place (An excellent cook in the group getting "Cooking for Dummies" as a joke might not think it's funny, and that could cause serious problems for group cohesion as well as his/her personal happiness).

--Accept that total hours worked over winter holidays are never exactly what they should be. If these are people you trust and believe in year round, let things go. This is not to say that you should allow them to make a habit of only doing a six hour work day, but if there are the occasional six hour days, or days working from home where less work than you expected got done, don't fret it. Holidays take a lot of personal time for you and for your team. Be flexible. Just don't get run over.

--Enjoy the emptiness of the office. I love to work during the holiday times that most people take off because I get so much done. It's so quiet, and it's an opportunity to take folks to lunch you might not otherwise get one-on-one time with.

--Get a little something for the team; above I mentioned a little ornament for each, though you can suggest they each bring in an ornament from home. In previous years I've given $5 coffee cards or, in one place where I worked, where chairs were were stolen frequently and not returned, I made a set of "chair charms" so people could always get their chairs back. It's not the amount of the gift, it's the thought of it; thinking about people in a positive way when they're not around lifts spirits and creates and strengthens bonds with your team. Even if you're just giving out holiday cards, it works wonders. This time of year is a great time to build and grow these relationships that will make you all more productive and happier as the next year progresses.

So that sums up my holiday suggestions. I hope you all have a lovely Winter holiday and an awesome New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Elevator Pitch

I was trying hard to come up with a pitch that sort of explains why The (Im)Perfect Manager skill set is a handy one to have in the modern workplace and how it adds value to any team that employs it.

In talking to my friend, who is now also my boss, he suggested I come up with a single PowerPoint slide about it; I upped that, suggesting an elevator pitch.

So, happy holidays and here's my elevator pitch for your perusal:

Companies hire employees based primarily on their skill sets--Development, Test, Finance, Project Management--and their fit within their group and the company. The theory behind this type of hiring is that the secondary skills to do their jobs, like communication and playing well with others, could be taught along the way, as the new employee ramps up to productivity. Have you noticed, however, that's not always the case? That there's one or two people in different groups hard to motivate or get on board with your plans? That sometimes cross-team collaboration could be so much better than it is? Well, that is these techniques can help you: those secondary skills make the world go round, from one improperly translated word that led to the bombing of Hiroshima to the promise and momentum of "Yes We Can."

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Have a lovely holiday, for those who celebrate, and enjoy the quiet in the office for those who don't.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


What are the acceptable reasons to provide feedback to a member of your team (or someone else)?

If you said anything other than "correction" or "praise" then you probably should read on. If you said either of those (or both) you might want to read on, anyway, or this will be a short blog week for you.

Basically, we often want to give feedback because our emotions are engaged in some way. Sometimes its positive, and sometimes its negative. But feedback really needs to be given sans emotion. Emotion can create a confusing context, and make the person receiving the feedback wonder if you're mad at him or her or the behavior you're trying to correct.

And note, I've said it before, but I'll say it again: you're never trying to correct or praise a person, but their behaviors. They can change those. they can see the behavior being praised in another and copy it, but they can't copy being the person who is praised (well, not in a non-creepy, non-stalkery way). Likewise, they personally are not a bad person, because even parents can't correct bad children, per say; they do behaviors that you don't like, just like kids. You need to give feedback to correct the behavior, so that the person can be more successful. See, your job as a manager is to make the people that work with you more successful (as I've said in earlier posts), because it only reflects good on you, and makes for a cohesive and positive team.

When giving feedback, unless there's some kind of potential emergency--"Um, Jane, mouth to mouth should be given from your mouth to his mouth, and not to his ear,"--you want to do it after you've had a chance to reflect on it, but not too far after the incident for the person in question to have forgotten about the event and/or her motivations for the choices that she made. It also gives you time to calm down if you had an emotional response (laughing my self silly is not proper when watching someone nearly kill someone else with inappropriate life saving techniques, but I might need some time to get over the giggles afterwards before I explain my feedback and press on to repair the behavior).

Typically, I give feedback that is potentially constructive (or they might view as negative) privately, and I give feedback that is praise in public. This might mean an email to a boss as well as the employee when praising them, but typically involves a face-to-face private discussion if managing a constructive conversation. Praise is rarely misinterpreted via email, and email is a good way to let someone's boss know they are doing good. Criticism, however, is completely easy to misinterpret in any way other than in person or over-the-phone; with a lack of context, its hard for some people to see you being unhappy with the behavior and not with them personally.

It can also be very intimidating to give feedback for both the receiver and the giver. However, if you are managing people, it's part of your job to help them be better and more productive workers. So, feedback comes with the territory. To get over the feeling of intimidating, make yourself a small list and follow it when talking to them. If they react negatively to your discussion, remind them that its the behavior you'd like to see changed, and that you are only giving them feedback because you actually like them, personally (or at least like working with them). Remember: it's not about you v. them, it's about you and them v. the behavior that may be holding them back.

I would also say to be careful with praise, too. Some people do not do well under the spotlight. Get to know folks and find out if they can handle public appreciation; if not, you might want to keep it private so they know you know, but don't have to worry about other people knowing and judging.

So there you go: one of the most powerful tools in a manager's toolbox: feedback. Use it wisely, and with as little emotion as possible, and you'll see amazing results over time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Musing in Meetings: Stay on Target

Ever attended a meeting about Underwater Basketweaving, only to have it devolve to trying to solve the problem of what underwater medium is the best for any kind of weaving?

Ok, probably not. But the gist is that a lot of meetings go off topic; oftentimes, the topics are way off topic: people's pets, plans for the weekend, personal crusades, love of puppets, etc. Sometimes, they wander within the realm of the topic--as noted above, underwater mediums--but don't accomplish the actual purpose of the meeting, which is Underwater Basketweaving.

In previous "Musings on Meetings" I've recommended an agenda as a method for making a good meeting. An agenda can help, but doesn't always constrain attendees. The more creative or motivated (or both) an attendee, the more often they are to go off topic. Further, their off topic remarks or thoughts are useful work...just not useful to the work of the meeting.

I have three tricks that seem to get positive results in keeping a meeting on target (if you don't count the agenda as one of them).

Option 1: Redirection
Just like kids get distracted by shiny objects and suddenly are no longer interested in walking to the park to play, adults have that happen, too. With a kid, you separate them from the item that has their attention, at least momentarily, remind them of their commitment to the original task, and redirect them there with promises of how much fun they'll have once they get there.

Works relatively similarly for adults. Stop the conversation as soon as you notice the derailment, remind them of the purpose of the gathering and what, by attending, they've agreed to discuss, and then enforce the message of the meeting by reminding them of the good that will come out of it. For example, fewer upcoming meetings, faster ability to complete work, going to lunch earlier, etc. People like to think that they make good commitments and decisions, and redirecting them back to the commitments and then validating the choice to make the commitment is a great way to get them back on track and keep them happy. No one likes to be bossed around (kids or adults) and this is a way to help them get the work done while still feeling good about the work and you.

Option 2: Alternative Options
Sometimes you can't nip it in the bud fast enough, or its really good thoughts/meaningful work, but not work that you need to do right now. In this case, I like to tell folks, "This is an interesting thought, let's spend two more minutes on it and let me get some notes down, and then I will schedule a follow up meeting." Then that's what I do--let them have 2-3 more minutes of the topic, take notes on open questions and new ideas, and then stop them and redirect them back to the meeting, reminding them you'll schedule another meeting (or talk to the person in charge of that set of topics) to schedule another meeting so that they know that it won't be lost and that they can talk about it, just not right now. Giving them a few moments to empty their brains of what they currently find exciting/interesting can often make the subsequent conversation significantly better (since they know they can work on those other problems at another time, and they've been validated in their interest in that other topic).

Option 3: Combine Option 1 and 2 and Documentation
Sometimes you need to let people talk, but you also need to get them back to topic. Combining 1 and 2 and documentation, will do that for you. After the meeting, you can remind people that the second subject will be discussed later, and what steps lead to that discussion. You can also include your notes from the meeting about both topics.

Option 4: Give Up
Seriously, give up is an option. If it's late on a Friday, the day after a late night ship, ten minutes before lunch...the list goes on of times when attention spans wander and you have to calculate the return on investment of trying to get them to focus or just let them go and reschedule the meeting. Never discount the value of giving up, but never fail to submit the next meeting invite, if you give up, the same day you give up. You don't want folks feeling like their lack of participation will dictate whether or not certain problems get discussed and solved, but you don't want them to try and solve problems if they aren't all there.

These tricks often work pretty well when you're not the one who called the meeting, as well, though I'd be sure of the strength of my relationship with the meeting organizer before horning in on the organizer's territory. Sometimes they are relieved by your help, other times, annoyed. Best to talk to them before it comes up and there are no surprises--well at least between you two--in the next meeting, which may wander to Atlantis or the future of the server farm.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Don't Sue Me Stuff: Harassment/Hostile Work Environment

When you become a manager, it isn't terribly often that someone sits down and carefully explains all the liability and responsibility you've accepted in so doing. A lot of the time they assume you just know (especially if you've managed people before).

This series of articles isn't about everything that could possibly happen, and it's not legal advice in ANY way. It's just sort of a heads up about what you may have gotten yourself into.

Today's Topic: Harassment/Hostile Work Environment

You have a female dev lead who is harsh with the male developers but otherwise normal with the female developers. What do you do? What happens when the team decides to ostracize someone and, through negligence and ignoring them, make the workplace unviable for them? How do you fix it? Are you liable for it? What do you do when two people are telling each other dirty jokes--and have since before this job, kindly out of the earshot of other employees--and suddenly one of them decides that they don't like it, after a recent bout of trading jokes? What if your client is the one who is suggesting things to a tester on your team in a potentially "ask a date" sort of way that is very close to potential harassment? How do you react if the tester asks for help to get out of the situation, or, potentially worse, asks if its okay to go out on a date with the client? What if you notice that your team has formed cliques, and that those cliques do not include one of your employees, who is never asked to lunch, snickered about (mostly) behind his back, and has trouble being treated like a full team member...?

Answering each of these questions individually would probably require a few months worth of blog posts, so here are some basic pieces of information, and suggestions (liberally) to contact your local HR to discuss things.

The moment you suspect you may have a harassment issue or hostile work environment issue on your hands, no matter what else you do, send an email to your boss summarizing your immediate concerns. As you strategize how to attack the problem, set a meeting with your boss and/or HR to discuss your next steps. This is very important so that you are not accepting the liability of the entire activity yourself--you are trying to do the right thing by the company and with the help of other members of the company. The sad thing about dealing with a potential sexual harassment or hostile work environment issue is that the moment you are made aware of the problem, your actions are potentially under scrutiny as a representative of the company; you could make it worse or you could make it better, and legally, you could be held responsible for either option.

As one HR person put it, "Hand it off as fast as you can." When you notify others of higher rank and in HR, they can either choose to leave it with you, going over plans step by step and sharing the responsibility, or they can choose to take the problem from you and handle it themselves.

For example, in one place where I worked, I got complaints that a developer was looking at scantily clad females on his machine. I talked to my boss and told him I'd like to confirm this allegation before getting HR involved, and he concurred with my suggestions to talk to IT. I asked IT to find the websites he'd visited and images he was storing on his company machine. He was viewing pictures of scantily clad women--they did have their clothes on, and they were not the primary subject of the pictures; those were the cars. He was viewing inappropriate (but not pornographic) material at work. At this point I went to HR and they took the entire thing from me (and the evidence IT had collected) and gave him a warning, but no further action was required from me.

So, step 1: Tell someone in authority what you suspect and why you suspect it, and get agreement on your plan of action.

Female Employee Harassing Her Male Counterparts

So, in the case of observing a female employee who may seem harsher with her male co-workers, follow step 1. The plan of action for this case is likely a sit-down with the employee to talk about how she talks to members of the team. This is not a "look how you treat Suzy, look how you treat Bob," conversation. This is a "here are some examples of behavior I didn't like and why, what can we do to remedy this," conversation. People can sometimes act in biased ways without knowing they are doing it, and making the discussion about whether or not they are biased is not productive to stopping the behavior. So make the conversation about the behavior and what you'd like to see instead. Follow up the convo with a quick summary of what you discussed and bcc your boss and (if you have involved them) your HR person.

In your weekly 1:1's with this person, check in with them on the behavior and confirm it is improving. Also, use your own observational skills. If the issue doesn't repeat within the next two weeks, keep your eyes and ears open, but its probably done. If it does happen again, then you will need to take more specific action; in this case you'll want to talk to HR about what you've seen and done, and then either hand it off to HR or talk to this person with the targeted perception that she may be biased against her male co-workers. I cannot stress enough how much you should talk to HR about how to have this conversation; its going to be rough and unpleasant, and you might want an HR rep there with you if they don't handle it themselves. At the conclusion of the conversation, you should have a new plan to check this behavior in place, milestones of measurement, and an expectation of what will happen if this plan isn't successful (lack of bonus, poor review, demotion, firing, whatever).

If this issue is reported to you by a male developer who is feeling picked on, follow the same steps as above, with the exception that after you talk to her the first time, you let him know the situation has been addressed. Pretty much, that's what you say "The situation has been addressed." Don't explain what happened or what you did. You can tell him that if he's still uncomfortable or unhappy he can talk it out with you or escalate to HR.

If she has progressed to requiring a second talk/HR intervention, you respond exactly the same way to the male or males reporting her. Note, if they report her again, you'll need to hand the entire thing to HR (no matter how they suggest you handle it) including having those folks give statements to an HR representative.

Dirty In-Jokes Make Someone Uncomfortable
It is not harassment if two people tell each other off-color jokes where only they two can hear and neither of them is bothered by it. However. If someone overhears them and is bothered by it, or one of them thinks more about it later and realized he is bothered by it, then it can be considered sexual harassment in the workplace (at least in Washington state).

Fun, right? This means sexual harassment is a subjective judgment in this case; if anyone listening is offended, now or in the future, then it's harassment. If not, then it's not.

The simplest solution is to tell them to knock it off entirely. They may have been doing it for years, but if it turns into harassment on your watch, you and the company are liable. If they want to talk to each other outside of work that way (say at lunch) they can do what they like off company premises and off company time, but you should encourage them to overall cut it out...because they work together they could try to make the argument that they are being harassed, even if done off the clock.

So, if you see/hear it, report it to your boss and HR. Talk to the folks and ask them to stop. Agree you are a party pooper or whatever it takes. If they continue with the behavior, take it up with HR and let them take over. You have no control over the subjective nature of how what is said is interpreted, but you do have control over what is said with your agreement and support.

Also, this probably goes without saying but I'll say it anyway, don't PARTICIPATE in this situation (or any others like it). It's nice to be liked by your team for sharing their sense of humor, but its really nasty to end up on the wrong side of HR and/or a lawsuit.

The Client is Interested in a Date
Now I'm just using the client as an example; this could happen if two of your employees try to date, as well. Laws vary by state, but the general gist is that you cannot have someone in a position of power in a relationship (or trying to start one) with someone over whom they have power.

This means that you could have two people of equal level--say two quality assurance testers--on your team that are dating because neither has any power over the other (although read about how sexual harassment is subjective above and you'll readily realize that this works up until the moment someone misunderstands something or there is a break up, at which point they can retroactively determine harassment), but you cannot (as manager) date an employee, and certainly a client cannot.

When the client is no longer a client, they may do so. However, if the attentions are unwanted, you'll need to meet with the client and explain the policy that they cannot date your employees and ask them to stop asking. In the case of a client--someone outside your power structure--you'll want to talk to HR about what you're going to say and even have them present if possible, but unlike an employee a plan to prevent things from happening can only be agreed upon, not enforced as part of their normal business duties. If the harassment continues, you need to escalate to and hand off the issue to HR as fast as your legs can carry you. You also may need to gran the employee in question some time off to avoid harassment and/or recover from it.

Cliques -- When Does Behavior At Work Become a Hostile Work Environment?
For the most part, behavior at work becomes a hostile work environment if someone feels that way. Or at least it should be treated as such, initially; this means you summarize for your boss and/or HR and meet with the aggrieved person or persons and ask about the behavior that they are finding intolerable. The difference, though, is where judgment comes in: if the team is cliquish and hasn't accepted this person, things can seem hostile without being that way. In this case, you need to talk to the various cliques and get someone to adopt him/invite him out. You as manager should occasionally suggest a team outing to reduce the affect of the cliquish behavior.

If however the groupings or individuals are saying hurtful things or doing things to another employee, you have to take things in another direction after initially reporting concerns to your boss and HR; you need to talk to HR and your boss about a plan that will encourage the correct behavior and punish the poor behavior. This may mean putting someone on a drudge duty they may not prefer while they reflect on a practical joke that did not work out as they'd hoped. This may mean you hand the entire thing over to HR, depending on how difficult and hurtful this person or persons has gotten.

Your Key Tools
Your key tools for managing a hostile work environment and sexual harassment are clear communication to those above you and in HR, investigation, and documentation. As much as you might like to be the awesome boss that just sort of lets people do what they do, you are an awesome boss, you're just not THAT awesome boss (who might also be going bankrupt from lawsuits).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bonus Blog: Sometimes You Hire Wildcards

I have several blog posts on the fact that you will make mistakes. Pretty much as long as you are breathing, mistakes are a possible outcome of any action you take.

This particular blog post has been inspired by a situation at a location where I was working where someone had hired someone who seemed to represent themselves as a logical, well qualified applicant, and then slowly melted down over the course of the time on the project.

I was brought in to learn the ropes and to step into at least half that person's job. I was brought in the week that one of the owners was on vacation, and that was the week this particular employee "lost it." Defaming character of co-workers, attempting to enlist loyalty among the team to him only (and not the company), total absorption with investigation of anything that might be going on that he didn't know about because, as the "manager" he should be involved with everything...the list goes on.

Those of you who read my journal probably also remember Fake Brain Tumor Man. A quick summary: an otherwise seemingly hard working, charismatic manager lied to everyone when he faked a brain tumor and then took a job at another company while maintaining his job with our company.

Finally, and very specific to me an those who worked with me, was a man that was almost my boss when I was working for a particular company. He was smart, fast on his feet, and slowly descending into something. Most of us didn't know he had a physical condition that kept rendering him to the ER. None of us suspect his wife had become estranged from him, nor the violent way he would manage it until that day in July when we came into the office and found out he'd shot and killed her and then himself. I sat near his desk, watching the digital photo frame cycle through pictures of him and her together, they house...the empty smiling faces. I couldn't stop myself. I played over the last few talks I'd had with him. There were hushed whispers about what would have happened if he'd come to work first (or before killing himself) with his two guns and a mind full of pain.

The people who interviewed him didn't know that he would snap. Those of us who worked with him daily knew he was under stress, but mostly kept encouraging him to rest and take care of himself; if we'd known, I'm sure we would have been adding "and don't kill anyone" to our litany of concerns when chatting with him. But we didn't. We didn't even suspect.

My point in this bonus blog is to let you know that human beings are complex creatures. You can do everything you can to find a good one to do the job you need done. You can vet them and have them answer technical questions and managerial questions and observe body language...and you can still have heart rending failures. Sometimes, following your gut and, hopefully, some of my advice can route that and make your work place a better place, where people are less likely to go off the deep end or feel so insecure they need to drag the company down with them.

But it still can happen. When it does, you need to look at the situation. You need to spend a day or two on all the "what if" scenarios flooding your head, and you need to let yourself beat yourself up a little for not seeing what no one else saw, either. Then you need to let it go. The what if's and the self flagellation don't turn back the clock. You will be delicate. You will be raw. But you will still be you. Just as smart and with as good judgment as before this person disappointed you. That's because humans are so complex that you can't see everything coming. Doing the best you can is what you are paid for, but is also what you expect of yourself.

As a manager, you need to rebound from these things--and other things--in ways that help you to help your team and co-workers move through an event. My boss when my almost boss went out in a murder-suicide was honest with us: he was shaken. Then he let us know he wasn't planning on shooting anyone anytime soon in case we were wondering. He talked to us. He checked in with us. And we got through it. I aim to be as good a boss as that every day, even when the sky is not falling. I just think its important that you who may someday see something so jarring to reality understand that you, too, can get past it, and help other people past it, too.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Managing Survivors after the Great Event

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about management and actual acts of god.

Today's post is about management and surviving actual acts of management. Often affectionately called "random acts of management," as you get higher into management, you start to understand the hard choices that have to be made. Well, choices which should be hard for most people (but aren't always).

Companies make money through profit, and they make profit by taking in more than they put out in terms of money. However they make that money or spend it, that's pretty much how it goes. When profit goes down, things become leaner--maybe you have to go through the receptionist to get the code to the copy machine. When profit goes down far enough, management's job is to stop it plummeting further.

This typically means reduction in services or benefits, pay cuts, or layoffs. All of which suck, to more or less degree. However, they bolster a reduced profit margin and make it possible for the company to continue moving forward, hopefully towards a future with a higher intake than outgo, so that more folks can be hired, get raises and bonuses, and have their services and/or benefits restored or even enhanced; that, however, can only happen if the company continues to exist.

So, management has laid some major changes on you. As noted in my post from last year on lying, you are going to have a period of time when you cannot communicate about upcoming changes. Please read that previous post, where I go pretty indepth about what to do there.

This post is about what to do after everyone knows. First, for those you have to lay off, fire, etc. I recommend reviewing my post on Leaving a Gig Professionally, Rather than Petulantly, Part 3: Someone's leaving, All the Stuff The Boss Probably Ought to Do.

Next, you are going to need to take care of the survivors of this act of management. Specifically, as soon as you're done with any personnel changes you have to make, you need to have a meeting for your team where they can speak freely and talk about their fears and concerns. Give them an opportunity to voice their fears and let them vent a little, but don't let it build anger. People need to say that layoffs suck, but they don't need to start planning--right in the presence of their manager--revolution against the company.

As a manager you are unlikely to be able to answer questions like "Will there be more layoffs?" and "Is my job safe?" This is where careful wording is required. You can't promise they'll still have jobs, but you can't freak them out by letting them know more people can go, either. My preference in that situation is to say that, as far as today is concerned, I am unaware of any additional layoffs. You want to put them at ease. Even if you are lying to them--and you might be--you don't want people freaked out and roaming the halls. You don't want a mass exodus of the people management wanted to keep to save the company. You also don't want to stress out your people for no reason--layoffs are often very last minute, so even if you're sure they're going to pull a head count from your team, you could receive a last minute reprieve, and in addition to violating company trust, you would rile the entire team until you found out who was going and/or if they were going and when.

Your responsibility as a manager after an act of management is to help people get back to normal. Not by forcing them there, but by acting like a human being to their very logical, rational, and human fears and concerns, and addressing them and investigating them where possible. Make yourself available to them to talk whenever they need to. If people are gone, have a plan in place to share the work and, preferably, reduce the workload now that there are fewer people producing.

A few days later, feel free to open the floor to the team on how you might be more productive. Working on project J, for example, might make project A and B easier, and while it won't make up for the folks who are gone, it could lighten the load for those who remain. Help and encourage them to feel involved in lightening their load and having some semblance of control of their future and their work with the company.

Most people walk around with the belief their job is safe, and they can do the amount of work that is assigned for them to do. That gets dinged all the way up to shattered depending on whether services (say, free food on Mondays) are cut or people are cut (you're losing one tenth of your workforce). Understand they are shaken. Understand there are things you cannot promise them. And within that framework, try to help them get as close to their beliefs prior to the "Event" as you can.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bonus Blog: Do As I Say, Not As I Do. Okay, Damnit. Maybe I'll Do as I Say, Too.

The original Bonus Blog for this week has gotten bumped to next Thursday. It deals with the fact that sometimes you don't always get what you expect out of people you work with and that you hire, and that's okay. You should, of course, still read that blog because I'm much more articulate and interesting and I do mention Fake Brain Tumor Man again.

Today's entry, however, is brought to you by me having my head up an unspecified orifice, and my friend--who is also my boss--gently showing me that so I could extricate myself with whatever grace I had remaining.

In all previous blogs about dealing with difficult people I ask you to think about the context of their behavior, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to try and out-nice them, and in general, make the best out of a difficult relationship.

Now imagine you're me and you throw all that out the window summarily.

That was me this week. I worked with this guy years ago. Our working styles conflicted. Whereas I know I have a tendency towards bossy and work hard not to be bossy, this was not an issue that he worked on.

Fast forward to a problem my current team is working out that requires a delicate touch. This is not the first guy I think of. In fact, today, when it was reiterated that a delicate touch was required, I panicked. I asked my friend and boss to lunch, and laid out for him my concerns about the fit. I also laid out my prior history and, anxious as anything, waited to hear what he thought--should we tell other boss on team about this?

His answer was what my answer should have been: let's bring the guy in, let him know what he's getting into, and give him a chance. Short, simple, and sweet. And I totally threw away the option because--years ago--I had tried, on multiple occasions to have such a conversation and either got shut down or all the appropriate smiles and answers and a return to the behavior as soon as the adults (well, supervisors) were out of the room.

It had never occurred to me to try talking, AGAIN. Which is rather one of the points of this blog: people deserve second chances. You as a manager need to be gentle with yourself because you will screw up, and you need to indulge other people so they can screw up and learn from it. But most of all, people change over time. You should let them. You should also, at least, give them the benefit of the doubt.

So there you have it. Having lunch with him and boss and one other appropriate person and we're going to try to sort it. It turns out, no matter how much you think you know--even if you're writing a freaking professional blog on the topic--you can be blinded by your own self and learn something (or relearn it) new.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Excuses, Reasons, Responsibility and Accountability

When I was in high school, the journalism teacher told us she would accept no excuses. You didn't turn a story in on time, it was on you.

Later, talking to my psychology teacher, he accepted reasons, but not excuses. Reasons, he said, were fact; they may or may not excuse a behavior but they give it context. Context is what you use to measure responsibility and accountability, especially when someone is short of the goals that have been set.

Why do you care when you're reading a blog about management? Because throughout your days you are going to get a lot of reasons, excuses, etc. Whatever they want to call them, people are going to fail to meet expectations, and you're going to have to understand the context in order to determine if they were doing their job or not.

For example: Bob is supposed to finish a task this week that is week that is well within Bob's ability. Bob fails to deliver. Look at the various statements below and think about the context inherent in each (and what other context you might require) and how to respond:

A) Bob had a death in the family
B) Bob got ill
C) Bob got stuck
D) Bob didn't work on that assignment, but a different assignment this week
E) Bob was late to work every day because of traffic issues, and therefore didn't complete because he didn't have as much time to complete the work as expected.

Note there are no "It was Bob's birthday and he blew it off" options; those are relatively clear cut. The above, however, are a list of reasons and excuses. Some will excuse the behavior. Some will not.

The big issue to look at when determining whether something excuses a behavior (or lack of behavior) is whether or not the excuse or reason was within the realm of Bob's control.

Let's look at (A), A) Bob had a death in the family. If Bob had power over life and death, Bob is unlikely to be working for you. (A) is firmly a reason why Bob was unable to complete the work, and, in my mind, a good reason. I don't care if it was Bob's mom, Bob's second cousin twice removed, etc. Some people do care--immediate family only excuses things for them. Some companies even have policies around it. But me, someone dying is beyond Bob's control. Now let's talk a little about context. I can pretty safely say that if someone is near dying or dying or unexpectedly goes, you can't really be expected to plan for that. Death does not invite rationality in most people. Bob, being an awesome person who knew his second cousin was about to go could have told you he wouldn't have that stuff done this week, but even then, excusable in my mind. You never know how death is going to affect you, and it affects you deeply...some people think they can work through it, other people become catatonic (note: I am one of the catatonic folks, it's not pretty).

(A) is the most cut and dried of the available options: you can't control death, and you can't control how you're going to react to death. This means, in my mind, this is an appropriate excuse for the behavior; this isn't going to show up on a monthly report or in the yearly review (other than as "send flowers" or "offer condolences").

Now, a look at (B), B) Bob got ill. This is considerably less cut and dried, if you think about it. You can't control being ill...mostly. Washing your hands, being careful what you touch and eat...generally good things to do, but not something your company can hold you responsible for in terms of getting ill. How ill you are is another thing that can't be controlled. If you and the porcelain god have been making out for days, there's very little that you can do work wise, whereas if you're sneezing every once in a while and really tired, maybe you can work from home.

A brief side note: I am a HUGE fan of working from home, for myself and for others. A lot of people are not so keen on it because they feel if they can't see their employees, its hard to tell if their employees are working. I say PSHAW, sir, pshaw. People produce work daily, and typically have to report it weekly. If they are screwing around when they should be working, they'll miss their deadlines and you'll know not to grant them as much freedom as working from home allows without specific deliverables on the given day.

However, people who feel a little sick are MUCH better to work from home than to come into the office. In the modern day world, contractors and consultants don't get paid if they don't work and full time employees often have paid time off (a pool of vacation and sick days) which effectively has them wondering if the sniffle they are experiencing is worth one fewer day on vacation. Having them come into the office and infecting everyone else is full of suck--now the one or two days they'd be out is multiplied by the number of people they came in contact with, breathed or sneezed on. Thus, I fully recommend having people work from home, if they are able to work.

If they are NOT able to work (see above example of close ties with the toilet), then have them take sick time, or time off without pay, or however it works...if they aren't producing, they aren't working, they can't be paid to work.

That aside, aside, Bob is ill. This could mean that Bob is working from home but getting less done because he's ill, it could be that Bob is taking time off because he's too ill to work. It could also mean Bob is daunted by the work and is taking some sick time to avoid the specific task. Finally, Bob may take sick leave to play hooky for some reason, which means he can't complete his tasks for the week, but it makes it much harder for you to determine if that sick time is excusable for missing the task deliverables.

Obviously if Bob is really ill and really trying, or at least communicates to you about his difficulties, illness easily becomes a reasonable reason that excuses behavior. If Bob doesn't communicate about where he is and what he's doing, and returns talking about the awesome video game that just came out on his sick day when he returns, you might want to look at his overall pattern of behaviors around deliverable dates and that reason becomes an excuse for shirking responsibility. Note: you really need to have your ducks in a row before approaching the concept of people pretending to be ill or being ill too often--check out my last post on Medical and Disability.

Let's look at (C), C) Bob got stuck. Bob was working the problem and couldn't get past certain aspects of it. This is close to cut and dry "excuse" that doesn't actually excuse the behavior. If Bob got stuck and told someone and work with someone to get unstuck and was still stuck, that's excusable. If Bob got stuck and tried to work it out on his own all week, or, switched to another task, then Bob is responsible for missing his deliverable, and that's inexcusable. It also means that Bob needs to have a chat with you about time management, asking for help, and maybe even finding something that fits his talents better than whatever he was working on last week. This is the kind of thing that will show up on a weekly report and maybe the yearly review if Bob isn't making progress. Rule of thumb: if Bob is making productive steps to get past getting stuck, that's actually a good thing for his yearly review. If he's standing still or going backwards, that's a bad thing.

Let's look at (D), D) Bob didn't work on that assignment, but a different assignment this week. This could go one of two ways: a) Bob was misinformed or had a miscommunication and worked on the wrong project, in which case both you and Bob are culpable for the mistake and missed deliverable (it is your job as his boss to make sure he's on task) or b) Bob knew he was supposed to work on this deliverable and didn't for some reason. Now if Bob communicated to you early about the reason he wasn't working on the deliverable--say it depended on hardware that hasn't been delivered--and you're aware, then no biggy; it's a reason and a good reason (most likely, Bob is not in control of the delivery of hardware). If, however, Bob didn't communicate to you about a solid reason like hardware being missing or worse, Bob preferred to work on another piece of work instead, that's "excuse" territory and doesn't mitigate the lack of work on the promised deliverable.

In the case of him being blocked by missing hardware, which you would typically excuse a behavior for, you wouldn't in this case because he didn't keep you informed. As his boss, you need to know things about promises made, and a deliverable is a promise made; its okay to fail to meet a commitment/complete a promise from time to time, but not okay to surprise your boss with it. As the manager, you take it in the teeth for your team's failures, and you protect them from the rest of the company coming down on them for those failures; if anyone is going to come down on them, it's you, and only with good reason. A good reason is being blindsided by a missing deliverable when you knowing about it sooner could have set expectations appropriately or, in a best case scenario, have you help in removing the blocking issue (ie: getting the hardware faster).

In the case of not working on the project and working on something else instead, something like (C) could have happened or Bob simply chose to abandon an agreed upon plan. In either case, it's bad news--this is an excuse and its not excusable. If you agree to do a piece of work for the team, you need to meet your commitments in order to maintain trust. Failing to do so hurts the team and definitely shows up in yearly review cycles.

Finally, let's look at (E), Bob was late to work every day because of traffic issues, and therefore didn't complete because he didn't have as much time to complete the work as expected. Let's break that down: traffic is something over which you have little to no control. You can control when you leave the house to get to work and whether or not you stop to get an awesome mocha-chino-latte-vanilla-something. But some days, leaving with a lot of time and not doing any extra errands and fate does not smile on you. Suddenly you're sitting in a sea of cars and unable to be at work on time.

In areas where there is only one way to get to work (or maximum, two), this is going to happen occasionally. You can't ask a person to come in an hour and a half early every day in an effort to avoid it. You do talk to the person, or your team, and ask them to let you know it might happen, and have them call you from a cell phone when it does happen so you're not worried about them.

However (and you knew there was a however), doing it every day for a week such that it affects your ability to complete a deliverable on time? That's an excuse, flat out, that doesn't excuse the behavior. If it's temporary road work for the week, day two you leave earlier, leave later (and work later) or work from home. You don't claim you were blindsided by the amount of traffic every day for a week.

The point of the example is to explain that you are responsible for your own actions and so are the folks beneath you. If you can control things that might impact your work, and don't, then, for the most part, it's inexcusable. If you cannot control things that impact your work and don't tell anyone, it's also inexcusable as you are missing out on people being able to help you, and keeping trust with them about what you really can deliver.

At the end of the day, trust amongst the team--including the manager--is what makes things work. It also makes things fun, efficient, productive, and a land of few surprises that you, as a team, cannot handle.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Don't Sue Me Stuff: Medical/Disbility

When you become a manager, it isn't terribly often that someone sits down and carefully explains all the liability and responsibility you've accepted in so doing. A lot of the time they assume you just know (especially if you've managed people before).

This series of articles isn't about everything that could possibly happen, and it's not legal advice in ANY way. It's just sort of a heads up about what you may have gotten yourself into.

Today's Topic: Medical/Disability

You have an employee who develops a medical condition and asks for an accommodation. What do you do? What does that mean? What happens if their medical condition reduces their productive output to a point that causes problems for your team? What if they do have a medical disability but are also just not a good fit for whatever reason? What if, during an interview, an employee of yours asks about a medical condition that seems apparent? What if someone gets injured at work or sustains a long term injury from doing their work?

Answering each of these questions individually would probably require a few months worth of blog posts, so here are some basic pieces of information, and suggestions (liberally) to contact your local HR to discuss things.

An employee should document a medical issue when it comes up if they feel it will affect their work. Someone is out sick, they send an email or call and let people know they are sick. An employee breaks his or her arm, and they need to talk to you and HR and bring in a doctor's note (just to make nice with everyone) and then create a plan for managing their altered productive output until they are on the mend.

This plan, and any additional things you implement to make it easier for this person to do his or her job, is generally considered "reasonable accommodation" which is required under the law when dealing with a medical issue or a disability so that you are not discriminating against an employee for having a medical condition or disability (temporary or permanent in nature). For the technical definition of "reasonable accommodation" check with your Human Resources department--they are the experts here. Basically in most states, the law says you have to provide reasonable accommodation to employees to avoid discriminating against them for medical or disability issues. Note the word "reasonable."

An employee diagnosed with cancer, mental disorders, or any other long term illnesses that have similar affects on work productivity need to have similar reasonable accommodations made. However, with long term issues, you need to decide if you need additional head count to manage the workload for the position, and, under some circumstances, can replace that person temporarily with another work (for example, a cancer patient is likely to take medical leave when going through treatment, and you want someone who can still do the job while he/she is gone).

In some cases, the employee's condition is such that they cannot fulfill their work duties anymore, even with reasonable accommodation. So even working out a strategy for reduced duties wouldn't be helpful. At that point, you need to talk to HR about your options and have them work out a solution with the employee; the state and federal systems look harshly on people who penalize the disabled for being disabled, but there are laws in place for folks who can just no longer do the work they were hired for, and will never be able to resume it, even with reasonable accommodation. Thus, a person with no arms can try to apply to a position where restocking large boxes is the main job requirement, but if that person isn't hired, it is unlikely he or she will be able to sue the company because there is no way there's a reasonable accommodation for that disability given the requirements of the job description.

Injuries that happen on the work site--such as an employee or co-worker cutting open his or her hand with the bagel slicer--should be reported immediately to HR (after, of course, that person is out of immediate danger). As a manager, you are expected to keep the work location secure and safe to the best of your ability, but otherwise you're typically not going to have to do much about accidents on site other than report them and get people to safety. If you have specific jobs--such as putting away equipment that could be tripped over or otherwise hurt employees--you should keep records about your regular and routine performance of those duties. However, few people are required to judge the safety of a bagel slicer which is a tool provided for the use of employees as a perk to make cutting bagels easier (and no one is marched in daily and forced to use the item as part of their jobs).

Long term issues that can occur on site, such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, for example, are pretty similar to overall accidents in that you report as soon as you learn of the issue, and you respond immediately to any requests in the workspace to accommodate/relieve the problem. In this specific case it means talking to HR about getting in someone to review the workspace to prevent worsening/continuing on the condition, and getting HR involved with the person suffering and any claims he or she might make. Its best--unless otherwise directed by your company and/or lawyer--to get out of the way on the issue of long term or short term injuries; the more you are involved, the more people can extend your responsibility, the more likely you can be considered liable. You don't want to be considered liable if that employee chooses to sue the company, because that means they can sue you, too, either as an agent of the company or individually ("You should have warned people about the bloodthirsty nature of that Bagel Slicer!").

When interviewing folks with disabilities, you are going to treat them just like you would if you were interviewing someone without disabilities. Which is to say, the hard questions--like do they need reasonable accommodation--should only be asked by you in the interview (or, preferably your HR person) and your team who may also be interviewing will be told to say nothing and ask nothing about the medical condition. The ONLY thing you can usually ask in an interview is "Are there any medical conditions for which you require accommodation in the workplace?"

An employee who has violated this will need to be talked to in private and pulled, for the time being, from future interview loops. HR needs to be notified immediately, and they should enact any additional communication with the interviewee on the topic; in that way they can reduce liability and hopefully put any concerns of the interviewee at rest.

If you have hired someone with a disability, or they develop one during the course of their time in your employee, and they have performance problems, you treat them like any other employee. Please review my blog on Getting Improvement Without Going Full HR on their Butts. I would add that you might want to start sending communications to HR for everything you two discuss BEFORE turning things over to HR, just in case the disability is part of the equation (or the employee in question thinks it might be).

As noted before, this is NOT legal advice. For that, see a lawyer or your local human resources department (or both). These are just some things to consider when jumping into the managerial hot seat.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Management and Actual Acts of God

Chances are likely that where you live there is some kind of natural disaster known to man that might happen there. Drought, flooding, fire, earthquake, tsunami, volcano, ice storm, snow storm, hurricane, tornado...the one common thing about living on the planet Earth is that there are lots of potential disasters--natural and otherwise.

As a manager, people see you as an authority figure. Stop laughing. I'm serious. When a disaster happens, you are more than likely still going to be in charge.

Does this mean you need to be a Firefighter, Tornado Chaser, or Ghost Hunter? No. But because these things could happen, you need to be familiar with the work place policy on the most common types of disasters. Further, if the company doesn't have company-wide drills, you need to work with HR to come up with appropriate drills so your team knows what to do in the event of a fire, earthquake, etc. You may also need to designate yourself some help in those situations, such as safety managers or floor fire marshals, or whatever your team calls them--people that help you make sure everyone gets out and gets out safely and knows, at least a little, of what to do in an emergency.

As a manager, unless the job specifically requires it, you typically don't have to know CPR. As a person, and especially as a person that other people will look to in an emergency, it might behoove you to get some certified training so you are better prepared in the event of an emergency, whether its at work where you're the boss or on the road as you are driving by. A little information can make it a lot easier to sleep at night, and could be a life or death difference for the people you meet.

Once you know what to do in the common workplace emergencies, make sure to set up drills, etc. quarterly to keep your folks aware of the issues. If this means swapping out the water in the earthquake kit (that stuff isn't potable forever) or doing your own emergency fire drill, or whatever, be sure to bring up safety at least once each quarter.

And now, what about the non-standard workplace emergencies? For example, if you live in a place where it doesn't snow a lot, and suddenly it starts snowing, what's your policy on people leaving early or working from home? Does the heat stay on at night in case people get trapped? If not, is it easy to change that? These questions also apply to flooding or major, major traffic issues. It's good to know what food, blanket, and shelter options are available in your building. Human Resources and Facilities can be your guides in this area.

Generally, because I live in the Pacific Northwest, if it starts to snow, I send people home. If they can work from there, fine; if they cannot, they can make the time up (or not be paid for it) as they choose. People in Seattle readily abandon their cars on perfectly good freeways and streets with as little as two inches of snow, which means your people need all the help they can get to get home safely. Obviously, use your own judgment, but think about these things before they happen, so your judgment is made in the unpressured light of day, and not, say, in a temporary black out while folks are looking for flashlights.

Finally, there are the non-standard severe emergencies. Massive power outtages; tornadoes, tsunamis of hurricanes where those things don't normally occur; or even, sadly, human-made emergencies, where a hostile person breaks into the office and does violence. Most workplaces have a policy on what to do if a hostile person is on the premises; most people don't care to review the policy, because most people cannot imagine that someone that they know could get violent.

I urge you, as someone who came close to having a hostile in her work environment, read those policies. Think about what you'd do, to protect yourself and to protect others. No matter how remote the chance, it's severe enough that if it ever happened, information that you have could be the difference, literally, between life and death. I can't offer advice here--I know what I'd do. But you need to select what works for you and yours.

In terms of the other unimaginable things, well, they are unimaginable. Here, however, are a few tips that might help, based on the unimaginable happening when I was running the technical support department of a game company in Mountain View, CA.

See, the sky got very gray. Lots of electricity in the air. News reported tornadoes touching down around the area--specifically, one was headed for Moffet Field, across the freeway from my building. That's very close in tornado terms.

I had a youth spent in Tennessee where as kids we drilled on what to do if a Tornado came through. My co-worker, in charge of the accounts team, did not have that training. The "pit" where customer support spent is hours, was a glass room with dark paper over most of the windows that did not open.

Step 1: Get Information
Had I not already known what to do, I had a room full of computers, so the first step when something unimaginable happens is: get information. Both about the phenomena in general and what's happening to you in particular. In our case, we had one guy with the door open staring at the freeway and the skies, and another two folks checking local weather. If I hadn't known what to do, I would also have had one of them looking that up. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you don't, but if you do, get as much information as you can.

Step 2: Find an Authority and get Their Input
I don't mean an authority in the management chain, but an authority in the type of event, if possible. In our event, I was that authority. The accounts manager was having everyone get under their desks and cover their heads with their hands. Prudent if this was an earthquake, but likely to kill people since all their desks were in front of windows and this was a tornado (which are known for altering the air pressure and shattering windows into large pieces of death glass). Fortunately for us, our boss had been complaining for the last month about being the only office with no window in the building. This made her office, and the hallway immediately outside it, the safest parts of the building.

Step 3: Explain the Plan and then Execute It, ASAP.
To do what little I could for pressurization issues, we propped the doors to which we had access (outside and inside) open to make it easier for the air pressure to equalize. I explained what we were doing as we did this, and where we were going and repeated, throughout, that we would be okay. Not, necessarily, because I knew it to be true, but because of all the lies you go to hell for, this is not one of them, in my opinion. If we were, and I was right, woohoo! If we weren't, and I was wrong, people would have worse things to dwell on than my lie.

Then I marched my team and the accounts team to my boss's office. I made a point of marching them past the other groups in the office.

Step 4: Try to Help Others if You Can (but keep in mind that they might not know what you know)
Customer support is very low on the totem pole, so I couldn't exactly tell everyone to stop working and follow me (they would not have) in the rest of the company. But, watching us, silent as ghosts, march away from our stations and the long way to my bosses's office caused enough people to come up and ask what we were doing that by the time we got to our destination, we had the majority of the building's occupants with us, and people higher in the org scouring for the remaining few.

Then it was a matter of kneeling on the floor with center of gravity far down, head lightly against the interior walls, and hands and arms protecting as the storm raged.

Step 5: Ride it Out
It was tense and quiet and dark and warm and scary. And then it was over. The tornado missed our building. The power was out. There were no emergency generators. But we were able to visibly see the funnel cloud in the distance moving away. Now, they can turn around and come back, but it was breaking up, so I wasn't concerned. If you have a subject matter expert on hand during your own emergency, check with them. Not everyone knew that those funnel clouds can turn right around and come back.

Step 6: The Aftermath is Not Going to Be Anymore Fun than the Actual Emergency (and probably less)
You survived. Yay! You need to wait for help or go get help. You need to work with the other leaders in your group to take care of the people who may have gotten hurt. You need to arrange for people to go home and/or call their families. You need to do this while everyone is pestering you about what to do next because you seemed to know what to do before which means you probably know what to do now...

In our case, the power was out, so all the phones were out except for a few cell phones (this was the 90's when they weren't as ubiquitous as today). Marketing had the cell phones, but would not let us use them--they were calling their families and their customers.

I marched the customer service group back to our area. We had a fax machine; that meant we had one analog line (no additional electricity required). We also had an old analog phone in a cupboard somewhere. It was dutifully dug out, and then my team was allowed to make a two minute phone call, each, before we notified the rest of the building a regular phone was available. I could do that because there was no one hurt; if there had been, even though folks had cell phones, I would have turned over the analog phone immediately, as it was more likely to get through and be reliable than the cell phones. Note, in an emergency today (and not the 90's like mine), cell towers will get quickly overloaded, so try not to use the phone if you can avoid it, and if you must, use a land line and try to call a land line.

After you've had contact with officials--police, CDC, medical personnel, whomever--and its safe to release folks, let them go home. Even if you have to have a skeleton crew, let them go and come back (if that is possible). Emergencies are SCARY. People aren't useful to you when they're worried about their loved ones, and they don't stop worrying about their loved ones just because they heard a voice on the phone. Looting is also a common issue for many natural disasters, and people want to be with their people to protect them and to feel safe, and not necessarily with the folks that they work with every day.

In our case, I waited until the power was on with a friend having sent everyone home, then set up the call lines to let people calling know that there had been an emergency and we'd be back tomorrow. I set up the same message for the email auto responder. Then I went home, too.

In summary, being the boss at the office also means that people have potentially unrealistic expectations of you when a disaster hits. When people get scared, their brains stop working, and so you need to put them and yourself through exercises so that they have a chance to get those brains working again, and so that you reduce the chances of anyone, especially you, getting hurt in a disaster. Of course, after you've all survived, things get a little worse before they get better, but they will get better...an you'll still be the boss.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Wonderful World of Onboarding, or "Hey, do you remember the password for the build machine?"

You are hired new. Or, you're hiring someone new. New hires are expected to hit the ground running, which is fine as long as the have the tools for their run.

As a manager, you're job is to have those tools--at least as much as you can--ready and waiting for them for day one. As a person being hired (perhaps being hired as a manager), your job is to acquire those tools as quickly as possible without being a pain in some new co-workers tuckus while you do it.

Both cases require you to think like you are the person being onboarded, as you want to look at the experience from the perspective of the person who needs the tools (and, of course, if you are that person, all the better perspective).

1) How are you going to communicate?

This question encompasses process, technology, and knowledge that you need to acquire quickly in order to succeed: how to know who knows what and when and what is okay to ask them.

Let's start with technology:
o You'll need a working phone that allows you to dial internally, externally, and allows you to set up and access voicemail.
o You'll need email access (sending and receiving).
o Does the team use Instant Messaging to communicate? This needs to be set up for you, too.
o Is there a common share where documents, useful urls, etc. are kept? Maybe a SharePoint? Access to this share/SharePoint needs to be made available to you.
o Timekeeping systems, are they in use? Are you set up to access? Do you know how to use them?
o Tech to do your job; this varies depending on your job. Do you need bug database access? Source control access? Access to the build machine? Access to the FTP servers? Access to download the proprietary software used to to build the code? Access to the web browser software to manage project management tasks? Automated tools access?

o You need to be invited to all the regular meetings: daily, weekly, team, etc. Those have to get on your calendar somehow. It does help if you have access to your calendar.
o Reporting: is there a reporting process on progress that needs to be made verbally (say in a daily meeting or weekly 1:1) or in a written form once or twice (or more) per week? Is there a format you need to learn/have access to?
o Team processes, rules, and mores: you need to know how the team does specific things so you can do no harm when starting to do your job. So, for example, is the normal method of defining variables camel case? Do tasks get entered under user stories in the project management tool? Is the expected results and actual results section of the bug report before the body of the reproducible steps? When do you stop arguing your point of view in the group (does quitting early lose you respect but arguing too long cause you to be ignored)? Does the team wander out to lunch together every day, and you should probably go at least once a week or every other week so they know you feel like you're part of the team, or is the lunch imposed by higher ups who think its a great idea but no one ever goes?

o Tech to do you work: who knows what that is, how to help get you set up, and who can troubleshoot with you when things go horribly wrong (tm)?
o Communication of social rules, mores and already-made-technical decisions: who is going to advise you on how the team writes code, what to avoid in the deli, and the team definition between a bug and a feature request?
o When those two point people--tech and communication--aren't available, who are the fall back folks?
o Who might you should get friendly with outside your team? I generally recommend making nice with admins and executive assistants, because, a) they tend to be extremely nice people or they don't last long in their jobs and b) they know EVERYTHING.

Finally, how do you communicate these meaningful pieces of information?

As the manager, when the employee comes in, write up an email with this data in it while having your first 1:1. Include who can help, and other friendly faces in the organization. Pre-load the links and usernames and passwords, where possible, so you can leave time open for answering questions about the materials and the people.

As an employee, when you first come in, see to your basics first: phone and email. Make friends with the people who sit near to you (but try not to annoy them). Schedule a meeting with your boss and set the agenda to cover these basic items. While waiting for that meeting, go visit the front desk and chat with the admin about where supplies are and ask him/her how they are doing.

Once you as an employee have the basic information, make a folder for it on your computer and one on your email, and start putting every new thing, every new url, ever new password into both places.

As a manager, work with the team to arrange for a single location that connects to all the necessary things, so that, in the future, the email you write with the employee is considerably shorter, because he or she can go to this location and delve into the depths for all the information they may wish to know.

Also, as the manager, try to arrange for a lunch with the team either the first day or sometime in the first week. Give people a chance to talk to the new guy and, if your budget allows, pay for the lunch so people will actually COME. Too many people see new folks as a potential problem or burden; while one free lunch is unlikely to undue all that potential worry, it's a good start to a soft step with a new person.

If you are new and no lunch has been set up, ask people to lunch with you. You're going to have to talk to them sometime, and doing it when you can shove food in your mouth rather than answer, immediately, an awkward question puts the odds in your favor of making a better initial impression...just as long as you aren't constantly shoveling food. Make sure to ask about other people, make occasional eye contact, and really listen; occasionally repeat back what you've heard so they know you are listening to them. The first doors of trust open if people think you are actually paying attention to them, and the good kind (not the stalker kind).

Onboarding is never an easy time--the whole team is disrupted, and of course, the new guy is, too. But it doesn't have to be very long or very bad, and it can certainly help set the stage for a new, successful team member and a stronger overall team.

What to do when bringing a new person on board/into the group. --tech --communication --team introduction --etc.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Leaving a Gig Professionally, Rather than Petulantly, Part 3: Someone's leaving, All the Stuff The Boss Probably Ought to Do

Whether an employee has elected to leave you for another opportunity, you are forced to lay them off for various reasons, or you are firing someone for cause, employees leave you and your team from time to time.

First, go to Human Resources. I'm a great source for a ton of managerial concepts and theories, but they are the experts at your place of business about legal requirements. Get things straight, as they say, from the horse's mouth about what must be done. The items listed here are just available to help you remember things and keep track of them.

1) How are they going?

a) Under their own power. If they've accepted another job opportunity, you have two options. One, proceed as you would with any employee leaving your team or two, attempt to persuade them to stay.

Rarely are you going to get them to stay by force of your personality alone; even if they agree to you in your office, they may be just afraid of you and still on their way out. No, if you're going to try to persuade someone who has gone through the resume submittal process and at least two interviews and finally accepted a job offer elsewhere, you need to bring a little more to the table than more of the same that caused them to submit that first resume. For that you'll need to talk to your boss and to human resources; can you get them extra vacation days? A bump in salary? A reduction in duties? More work from home? What is on the table for you to offer AND does your boss and Human Resources agree its worth the time and money to offer it?

If your boss and HR aren't feeling it, no harm, no foul, wish them luck and work with them as they leave. If, however, you do get support, then schedule a meeting with that individual and ask them about their experiences in the current job. Is there something causing them to leave? Is there something in the new job drawing them away? Open ended questions like "What would it take to keep you here" are very pressuring and hard to answer. You need specific questions that give you specific answers, so you can lead into what you've been allotted to give them in order to help them make the choice to stay. Note, I said "make the choice to stay." This is not about bullying them, or making them feel guilty, its about helping them weigh what is best for them professionally, because that's the decision that caused them to choose to try to leave your organization. Making it about you, or the organization isolates them from the conversation, makes them feel unimportant, and pretty much kills your chances of a successful renegotiation.

Keep in mind, even if you do it all right, there are reasons that many employees will not share with you, about why they are going. You may never know what the true problem is in order to help fix it. Or, in some cases, you might, but it might be beyond your power to fix. It's not a failing on your part as a manager, these things sometimes happen. Just do the best you can, be on their side, and let them know your door is always open and you're a phone call away in case they need anything. You might not get them back to the job where you're working now, but that kind of friendly support might make it easier when you're pulling together a dream team of individuals at another job, or, as this job under different circumstances.

If they are still leaving despite your best efforts, you need to schedule when their permissions and access will be revoked from the system.

Let's talk about permissions for a moment. When you first start working at a company, you're given access to email, maybe a share drive, the network so you can log into your computer...and then a variety of other potential accesses are given over time so you can check in code, or modify a SharePoint portal, etc. All of these are ways for users to access company resources and make modifications and/or send information for and from the company.

When someone is leaving the company, you will need to cancel those permissions in an appropriate manner to reduce their liability regarding company security and to protect company security. Angry former employees who still have master passwords can do a lot of damage to a company, and former employees who aren't angry but don't have particularly clever passwords can be liable for data lost by thieves who might guess those passwords.

Best to protect everyone and schedule with your Information Services/Operations department when their privileges will be removed, and all passwords they knew that must be in use should be changed (sometimes you can't say, take down a vital database, but you can change the password). It's best, for employees leaving under their own power, to know when their passwords won't work anymore/permissions are revoked, so they can complete their work and any other obligations to your company before they go.

Sometimes these permissions have physical manifestations--such as a hardware pass key to make sure that users are allowed on an internal system or a badge that allows them to enter the building. You can remotely deactivate both devices, but its also a good idea to get the company hardware back from them so that it can be used by others and so that there are fewer risks that someone who wants to break into your network or building doesn't have the first building block to do so. Physical manifestations also include computers, monitors, peripherals, etc. Letting employees walk away with company resources costs the company money (and might personally cost you if the company decides that you were not diligent in retrieving those resources).

So, in the talk with the employee about their leaving, set up an appointment to discuss it, or discuss it then, but schedule a time to end permissions, change passwords and hand in all the company resources.

b) Not under their own power. You have lost a headcount. Your division is being dismantled and there aren't spots for everyone on the team in other places. One of your employees was unable to make his obligations under an improvement plan and all other options have been tried or you are in one of those rare situations where an employee must be terminated immediately with indisputable proof of a situation so bad they cannot continue to work here.

None of those is fun, by the way. As we'll explore in a future blog post about handling "Great Events" such as an explosive firing or a series of layoffs, there's a lot to do for the survivors of the event; calming, reassuring, securing their position (even if its not entirely secure). This is to discuss what to do for the person who is not surviving this.

As noted in a movie recently, "Would you rather be shot in the head, once, clean, or shot in the chest multiple times and bleed to death?" Appropriately, the person being asked said "Are those my only choices?" The answer, when removing someone from your employ, is yes. You can try to break it to them gently and slowly, which I believe is really more like shooting them in the torso and watching them bleed to death, or shoot them in the head with a gentle, firm, and quick termination. Of course, no matter how upset you get with someone, you really shouldn't shoot them, literally, at all, no matter how badly you want to.

It's important to know what you're going to say before you talk to them privately--as noted above, talking to HR about what you want to say can help you stay within the realm of legal things that are unlikely to leave you open to a lawsuit.

Next, you need to know when they are leaving--as soon as they leave your office are they going to be escorted out? Will they be allowed to pack up their things and clean out their personal items from their computer? Will it be another week before their project is over and they're being asked to stick it out until then?

Human Resources can help you make the decision about when they are leaving. A general rule of thumb is, if they are likely to make a scene and/or react very negatively, walk them straight out the door and handle getting their things to them later. I don't mean silently sobbing, I mean screaming, yelling and potentially damaging internal systems. Or getting very quiet and making you worried they might do something violent (or any other signs of potential violence). Even if you walk into the meeting with them thinking they can clean their desk and their computers before they go, and they give you some kind of sign that they might be dangerous or do harm to the company, skip your original plan and have them walked out. It's better to be safe than sorry, and, in addition to your obligation to the person you're terminating, you have an obligation to the people that remain that they will be safe and to the company that their data integrity will remain safe.

A brief note about safety and the workplace fits nicely here: if any employee on his or her way out for whatever reasons makes threats against you, other employees of the company, or the company in general, write down what they said and when they said it and who was present at the meeting. Caution them against threats and threatening behavior, as many people who are angry leap directly to the empty threat model to make themselves feel better. If anything happened after those threats, that person would have made him/herself a suspect, and they need to not dig that kind of a hole for themselves. Additionally, it can hurt their future prospects, from references here (at the company they are leaving) to a potential police arrest or report. This is not to be mentioned to them as a threat, but from the perspective of someone watching out for them; for example "I don't want you to get in trouble if something random you had nothing to do with happens after you've said what you're thinking in anger."

If you ever feel unsafe in a termination meeting, excuse yourself and get additional help. Company security, HR, whatever; they don't pay you to be a bouncer for the company. Try not to get other members of the team of the person being terminated involved; one, it might make them targets of his/her anger but two, its hard enough being a survivor when someone is let go, its doubly hard if they have to witness someone they worked with every day and may have called a friend break down in a nasty and terrible way. Obviously, though, if choosing between safety and the mentality of the surviving team members, I'd go with safety. Just remember to think of everyone's safety and not just your own.

We'll talk more about what to do with a person who is leaving in just a sec, but to wrap up the safety thoughts: if someone has made threats, even if they were empty, "blowing off steam" comments, document everything and pass that on to HR as fast as you can. In the unlikely event that person does anything on their way out, or after they're gone, its safely in HR's court to handle, and no longer your responsibility and liability. You can even comment on the comments in your notes to HR about the person just seeming temporarily upset, and that they didn't seem to mean it, but report it; failing to do so and having that tiny percentage chance of something going wrong isn't worth it. No one should be hurt or scared in their work environment and as a manager, you have to take actions you may not want to take to protect them and the company.

So, if you are walking an employee about to be terminated straight out of the office, have their permissions canceled/passwords changed before you walk them into your office to be told. This may mean they are unexpectedly locked out of some systems and there are some awkward moments. But it's better to be safe than sorry (as noted above). If you are letting them collect their things and clear personal information from their computers, talk to IS and lock down their access to internal systems while allowing them access to email and their computer. It's up to you if you feel you can trust them not to take company property (intellectual property) and send it to themselves (or others), or if you want to hang around while they do it; I have rarely had a time where it wasn't better to hang out, help them pack, and hover while they clear things off. It creeps them out, and usually pisses them off, but it keeps you both covered against liability in case of issues with proprietary company materials getting into the wild.

If you have an employ working for a length of time before they leave, then you'll need to have the same talk with them that you did with those going out under their own power so they know when their permissions will end so that they can get what remains of their job done. I once experienced my boss's colleague turning off all my permissions when my upcoming layoff was announced a full week before I was supposed to go, rendering me unable to work for about three hours. I'm not opposed to them paying me to surf the net while they straighten such things out, but as a manager you probably should be opposed to people surfing the net instead of being able to get their jobs done. Details, I know.

2) What about the paperwork? No matter how they end up leaving your employ, there will be paperwork for employees. For those leaving under their own power, you'll need to do an exit interview and fill out appropriate paperwork, and get them copies of any papers they need from their files (such as visa forms or proof of insurance, etc.). You'll also need to clarify their address for their final check and how they'll choose to get it--auto deposit, picking it up, etc. For this, like any other professional paperwork at the office, you'll need to consult with HR to make sure everything is done according to the law and company policy.

For those not leaving under their own power, the same needs are present, but, depending on how they are leaving, the time during which to provide those materials might be somewhat compressed. Additionally, they need to know about unemployment options (if you are at liberty to discuss it with them--if your company knows it will contest an unemployment claim, you probably don't want to provide them materials on unemployment) and COBRA insurance, which covers folks who have lost their coverage when leaving a place of employment.

3) Did you dot your i's and cross your t's? After the paperwork is done and the person is out of the office, you need to meet with HR again just to make sure you got all the proper papers filled out and to discuss any potential issues; if the person said words like "kill you" or "sue you" (or any other threats as noted above) you'll need to pass that information on to them and your documentation of it, so they can get the security and/or lawyers warmed up, and to make final additions of the signed documents to their files on those employees. You always want to follow this last step, handing over responsibility for the terminated employee to HR, so that you do not have to do any additional work in this area; it reduces your liability and your workload to do this. Once you've met with them and talked it out and handed over papers, send a quick email summarizing that you've officially handed things over, and then quietly avoid dealing with any additional items around terminated employees by handing them to HR.

No one ever said management was glamorous. These are simple things, but they are things you need to know, to think about, to consider, and to protect yourself with.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Leaving a Gig Professionally, Rather than Petulantly, Part 2: You don't Initiate Leaving, But You're Leaving Anyway.

It happens, eventually, to everyone. You're working at your desk and your boss or the a human resources rep asks to see you in his or her office. You wander in, a small amount of dread in your mid section, and you discover that you are leaving the company.

In current times, you're usually being laid off (as "firing" is a lot easier to dispute in a court of law) and honestly, they may well be laying you off for legitimate reasons. Whatever the reason for the layoff, you're on your way out. It just depends on whether it's that very afternoon or you have been given some time to complete projects.

In some cases, you're being fired. You did something that the company prohibits, disapproves of, or otherwise has issue with for any number of reasons, or for none at all--many states are "at will" states, so you can be fired at will (just as you can leave at will). Note, most places have actual reasons in place for a "for cause" termination, so that they can be protected in case you decide to sue for unlawful termination. In this case, it's not a matter of how long you have to complete projects, that's not really an issue anymore. You're going from the meeting with HR or your boss out the door, and its a matter of whether they'll let you pack up your stuff or if they will do it for you.

No matter the reason you're suddenly not having a job anymore, it sucks. Even if you've been expecting it, even if you hate the job with a passion of a thousand fiery furnaces in hell, it sucks to have someone who is not you choose your fate, and choose it in an area that affects your life and livelihood so profoundly. Leaving a job hurts, but being removed from the job hurts more; you're always wondering what you did wrong, or, in some cases, not wondering at all and maybe feeling like a bad person.

I'll start with the good news: what people tell you when you are being terminated from a job (laid off or fired or whatever) is sanitized before you hear it. For the same reason you shouldn't lay into your boss or type up a letter about how much everyone sucks when you're choosing to leave a place (per last week's blog post), companies have to be very, very careful in what they tell you when you're leaving employment under their power and not your own. So no matter what they say, you're probably never going to know the exact reason that you were let go, and that means no future employer will ever know, either.

I recommend in the case of laying off or being fired you request an exit interview. During the interview, you are going to ask for tips and information about how to improve your job performance at your next position. You are going to not get angry and yell and scream. You will take each point and accept your flaws if you agree with their assessment, and make a counterpoint if you do not. This is not arguing for your job back, this is making a statement that, with what they've said, you're going to write down and you'll send it to them in an email when you get home as a summary to make sure you understood what you were told and so you have a written record, in case they opt to change the story later. You will not include your verbal agreement on the flaws that you did agree on, only that the flaws were mentioned, and you will include a neutral argument against the flaws and issues that you do not believe. Again, this is not to argue with them--the job is GONE. But to set the stage so that if they are called on a reference in the future, they are aware that you're the type that keeps records. They'll be more inclined not to tell an interviewer calling about your time working there anything negative (either directly or through tone) and keep it professional.

You'll also be able to take that same set of notes and use them when, inevitably, while interviewing, your interviewer asks why you left that job. You can explain that there were some differences of opinion which were squared away in the exit interview, and, if you must discuss specifics, keep it general in regards to what you've done to improve yourself since that time. Note, if in a future interview you fear that a company may say something bad about you, you often have the opportunity to check in the application "do not contact." If you can, do that. Obviously try not to do it for every employment opportunity you've had, but if you can keep these people from talking to the folks that fired you/laid you off for specific flaws, then you should.

If you cannot prevent them contacting this employer, then you should disclose the fact that you did not part with that particular company/boss on good terms; again, keep it general: "We had a difference of opinion; he was the boss, his opinion was what should count--as the boss he should get what he wants--and so I left. I worry that he or the company may not look favorably upon me after our last conversation."

Obviously, if you were laid off for budget reasons, because your division was terminated, because the company closed, or other reasons that have nothing to do with your performance, feel free to volunteer that information at the nearest opportunity.

But back to the office you're about to leave. If you were laid off and they gave you a week, two weeks, or a month to finish projects (as some companies do), treat it like giving your notice as noted in my previous article:

1) Try not to burn any bridges on the way out
2) Take all your stuff on the last day
3) Leave all their stuff (badges, etc.)

If you are leaving that very day, then you need to find out about disposition of your things--will you be able to pack them and take them to your car, will they pack them and you will wait, or will they pack them and you will collect them at a later date? Find out from your boss/HR person, and then comply with their wishes. If there is an item or two without which you cannot live, ask for that item and they will accommodate you. On days when you're being walked out of the building, the company REALLY doesn't want to make a scene, so they're likely to give into your needs.

And that's sort of the important part here: DON'T MAKE A SCENE. Making one could make you liable if other employees take actions detrimental to the company because of your leaving; ie: they follow you to a new company, protest and cost the company money in lost productivity, or a variety of other potential actions. As eager as you may be to see the company embarrassed and/or brought to its knees, this is not an 80's feel-good-summer-movie; it never works out that way, and in this litigious society, you could be unemployed and end up owing money to the company that made you unemployed.

Also, it's unprofessional. I know the last thing you're probably thinking about when you get laid off/fired is "how can I seem the most professional," but seriously: handling this type of thing with aplomb and professionalism is what will increase the chances of a good character reference, good professional reference, and/or change the answer the company might give when asked by another firm interested in hiring you "Would you hire this person again?" from a "No" to a "Yes." As much as we hate it, as much as its unfair, future jobs may contact this job and you want to increase your chances of that being as positive an experience as possible for the sake of getting employment in the future.

Now, if you feel you're being fired unfairly, STILL DON'T MAKE A SCENE. State it in your exit interview and your summary notes. Then I recommend talking to a lawyer to see what your options are. The more professional you appear and treat the situation, the more likely a future judge will reflect positively on your behavior.

Okay, you have your stuff, you're driving home, you've been fired or laid off. Now what?

Now you go directly to your computer. After you type up your notes and send out a summary, you go to the local state unemployment site and immediately, do not pass go, fill out your unemployment paperwork. Most states have a lead time (a week or two) and you want to wait as little time as possible for unemployment insurance to come in; some money is better than none at all.

Next, update your resume with the details of your last job skill set.

Now, take a break and mourn the loss of your job; have a nice dinner. Spend time with friends. Do something non-work related and non-work-finding related. Yes, things suck and might be dire, but your not in the right head space to sell yourself to other people--which is really what job hunting is about--so, take a little time, at least that very evening, and give yourself some time to relax, mourn, and heal.

Then start kicking the tires on the job market.

Note, in some rare cases, employers will challenge your right to unemployment benefits. In most states, to get them, you need sign off from your former place of business. If they opt not to provide that, or delay in doing it, you should check what your recourse is with your local state unemployment bureau. It could be a simple letter from the unemployment department, a mistake that got made and could easily be fixed, or actual reason on the part of your former employer to deny you (whether those reasons are legitimate or not). You have options. Your local state unemployment office can help point you at the right ones for you, if they cannot outright resolve the issue themselves with your employer.

Aside from dealing with the trauma and the need to get back into the saddle with a new job, keep in mind that losing a job is not a measure of your self worth. I have trouble with that myself; the economy sometimes just sucks. Other times, you have just a really bad boss. Other times, you have had an interesting learning experience. But it doesn't mean that you won't do better next time, or that you are a bad person. You're a person without a job, who will eventually, become a person with a job, and that's all that it means.

Next Week, the final installment in this series: Someone's leaving the job, All the Stuff You Probably Ought to Do as Their Boss.