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: Miscellaneous
Someone at the company has made a team member very unhappy--like, crying in the bathroom unhappy or charging out of the building and leaving for the rest of the day unhappy. How do you handle that? Someone in your is office is taking a bite out of other people's lunch food...what do you do about that?
I know, right? That's stuff you probably haven't had to think about in terms of being a manager. I know I always assumed that when there was an issue between two employees there was a calm and rational way of handling/managing it. Of course, if they could be rational and calm, there probably wouldn't have been an issue in the first place. Then there's someone eating a bite of food and then putting that food back! Gross. But you do have to deal with it. Finally, workplace tradgedy--someone dies, gets committed, has a stroke on premises or, worse, comes to work with a weapon. You have to do something--doing nothing makes you look bad and potentially could increase your liability if there were physical and safety repercussions because of the incident. But you don't want to do something that makes you seem culpable or as if you are accepting responsibility; meantime, you are human, and you need to react like a human, for yourself and for your team.
My miscellaneous examples don't cover every situation. I wish that I could, but that would be a really, really, really long book. Human beings do weird stuff, and sometimes bad stuff. As the manager you don't need to open every dark closet in your brain anticipating, but you need a basic plan to work from to deal with any miscellaneous issues to avoid lawsuits and still serve your team.
So, my basic toolkit:
1) Gather information from multiple sources, not just the people immediately involved and not just what you saw with your own eyes. Your perception can and will be skewed with the application of emotion. While emotion does play into these, you need to be as logical and sensitive as you can be. The easiest way to do that is to get as many perspectives as you can.
2) Let people know you are working on the issue in question--that you'll take care of the two fighting employees, or the food biter, or that you will schedule/arrange something for the workplace tradgedy. It's okay if you don't know what you're going to do, just let them know you're working on it and a time they can check back with you when you think you'll have more information. This helps people to feel better and more confident because SOMEONE is working it. This also helps back down the other members of your team who may want to help, but may not have the authority or information resources you have to do the best possible job (and could make things worse).
3) Construct what happened. I like to do bullet points, but some people like to draw pictures. Whatever makes you happy and productive, but get a timeline of events around the issue in question, using the information from multiple sources. You can start to help with a problem if you cannot properly define the problem.
4) Think of potential solutions BEFORE engaging in any of them. Plug them into your "what happened" model. Bounce them off your boss or mentor. Talk to HR. Seriously. This is the "limiting liability" of your response.
5) Of the solutions, pick the best based on your review of them and implement.
6) Also, document. Document like you've never documented before. To HR. To the individuals involved. To the team that is affected by what's happening. Document and communicate, and if you have questions about what to document or to whom to communicate what, talk to HR and/or your immediate boss.
7) After you've talked about/implemented a solution/next set of steps, set up follow ups to see how the "solution" is going; if not well, you can adjust your strategy. If well, you can adjust your strategy, also, to make things go even better (if possible).
So let's apply my toolkit to the examples I site above:
Someone Made Someone Else Cry
Disclosure: this happened on my first Management job. The matter was not one over which you could normally be sued--he questioned her competence in general, not because she was a woman or Persian or of an alternate religion. He did it, most likely, because upper management was trying to replace me with her, and she had no quality assurance or management experience. She was just a friend of their family. I managed to prevent him from being fired, but wow. I've done fun things. This was not one of them.
1) Investigate. Where there any bystanders? What did they hear and see? Next, talk to the crier and assure them that everything is all right, you're getting to the bottom of things, and they just need to be honest - what did he/she hear? Finally, talk to the person or persons who instigated; keep an open mind. Some people can never guess what the affects of their words will have on others. Do not talk about what you've heard from others unless someone appears to be mis-remembering, misrepresenting or out and out lying. Typically when you do correct with facts you've gathered, do so without naming names. You don't want folks involved getting further agitated at each other or other people.
2) Communicate to all parties you are working on the issue; communicate also to your immediate supervisor and HR that you are working on the issue.
3) Construct what you think happened--draw on paper, use bullet points, whatever. Do this in private. Know that you can NEVER know exactly what happened; my grandmother used to say "There's what he said, she said, and then what really happened." If you're gathering data from the "said" folks, you're only going to be able to guess at what really happened. Regardless of what you think happened, know you CANNOT PROVE it (unless you have video tape, because even eye witness accounts become unreliable if this becomes litigious).
4) Review your options: talking to the participants about the specifics, talking to the entire group about what in general are not-allowed topics of conversation, talking to the initiator and setting up meetings to alter behavior as needed, talking to the crier who may have been triggered by additional stress outside of work and therefore you might need to provide additional stress relief and coping mechanisms (more than punishment). Meet with HR and your boss to review the options, but come with your preferred option to recommend.
5) Implement the solution. This involving humans, it's probably not going to be a one time thing; you may tell the group to stay off politics and religion in general, but you'll have to repeat the message over time. You may have to work with the initiator to understand the results of his or her actions, over time. You may need to help the crier in question get help from HR as needed to alleviate issues...over time. These things are never fast and easily over.
6) After you've had your convos and implemented your solutions, tell the whole tale to your boss and HR via email documentation. Send a summary to the parties with whom you talked about their follow up action items (and your own). Send a message--as needed--to the group as a whole letting them know things have been put to bed (though you don't need to explain the entire situation to them, as that might violate privacy for various individuals, and, additionally, cause them to try to get involved after the fact...many helpful people can often make things worse).
7) As part of your action items, build in follow-ups then schedule them on your calendar and ATTEND them. The natural desire when something like this comes up is to treat it like a dead skunk on your back porch...sweep it off into the garbage and hope you never see it again after garbage day. But people don't work like that; they require reminders and support to change behavior and become more comfortable. As the manager, its your job to help them to get the behavior you want and to be happy at work (well, as happy as anyone can be at work).
Disclosure: at one place of my employment a person would take a bite of other people's food and put it back. Typically they only went after food that was already a leftover...food that someone had already been eating on. Gross AND creepy. I was not the manager, so my suggestions come from what I thought about every time I put my lunch sack in the shared fridge.
1) Investigate. This is going to be gross--talk to the folks who have had a bite of their food taken. Find out when their food was in the fridge. Talk to folks who use the break room to find out if they've seen anything suspicious. Does your company have security cameras? The probably don't have them in the break room,but you never know when a camera might have a view in on the area.
2) Communicate to all parties--as they did in the case at my work--that the issue is being investigated. They put up signs in the break room. In this way they didn't worry people who weren't using the fridges but the folks who did use them were both warned and aware that management was acting.
3) Construct what you think is happening. When is the most likely time the perpetrator is stealing a bite? Are there specific foods he goes after? As noted above, he preferred foods that had already been eaten on; this was useful information to communicate to the rest of the staff for purposes of the solution.
4) Review your options. If this is long running (like it was at my work) you might want to talk to HR and security about your options for catching this person. For example, a web cam in the kitchen pointed at the fridge, on or off, is a likely a good deterrent, but you don't want people who don't like being photographed to freak out or feel their rights are being violated. Communicating to the staff when the food is likely to be molested and under what conditions can cause them to package their leftovers more opaquely, or in ways that makes it harder to get into and out of easily for someone running in to "grab a bite." Another option--which I eventually ended up using myself--was to suggest bringing in insulated lunch bags and just keeping food at your desk instead of using the fridges. Not always an option, but it was for some folks.
One option I contemplated (again, not as a manager) was to bring in leftovers laced with Syrup of Ipecac. My friends--bless them--warned me off the potential legal issues with making strangers at your office sick. Yes, you'd know who it was, but it could be construed as assault. I was not curious enough to go to jail to find out who the biter was.
5) Implement the solution(s). As I wasn't the manager in this case, the only solutions implemented were to warn people, suggest opaque containers, and recommend people not bring in leftovers.
6) Write up everything you did for HR and your manager, and send out appropriate recommendations/updates to people using the fridges.
7) Follow-up; check back to see if the biter is still in operation, if "attacks" on helpless food have decreased, or if any of your original solutions (or new ones you may have thought up) could not be implemented.
In this particular case, the biter was never caught. Incidents of having your partially eaten food further eaten by a stranger went down, but never went completely away. As noted above, I just started keeping lunch at my desk in an insulated container.
So, there you go...a million other scenarios could play themselves out. You need to
A) Rember weird stuff happens and
B) Be prepared to roll with it
C) Come up with your own framework (or use mine) for handling these issues
D) Keep everyone informed and get counsel from appropriate sources (like HR and your boss) and
E) Resist the urge to do something based on emotion (such as firing an employee on the spot or poisoning food in the fridge).