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.