Friday, August 26, 2016

Checking References is Still Important

Do you know who you’re hiring?

"Checking references is a waste of time, you never get any useful information", "An applicant is never going to give you the name of someone who will give them a bad reference", "Employers are reluctant to give references". Any of that sound familiar?

If you don’t feel references are worthwhile, you probably won’t get useful information. If your effort is cursory your results will be as well.

However, if you dig deeper, ask better questions (don’t just confirm the applicant’s information) you stand a much better chance at getting information that will either support your decision to hire, or warn you off a potentially bad hire. We all want to make good decisions and being diligent about checking references can go a long way toward getting you to that goal. And remember, you might be held liable for information that was available, but that you didn’t get or consider (negligent hiring?). Some industries and occupations require proper reference checking, but we can all benefit from the effort.

Getting the real low-down on a candidate is really not all that difficult. Specific word choices and the tone and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) with which the reference describes the candidate yield good information. If the tone doesn’t match the words used, that’s a reason for follow-up questions.

Listening for what is not being said is also telling. Once, when speaking to colleagues about another HR pro, I found that the common response I got was that she was "really nice!" Well, that’s great, but can she do the job? What I wasn’t hearing was any comment on her competence and HR knowledge. When I dug deeper, asking specific questions, I got what I was looking for: her experience was lacking. 
When asking about the duties and responsibilities of the candidate’s previous jobs you may find that the he exaggerated about his experience, employment history or education. Did the candidate do what he said, complete the projects he spoke about and hold the responsibility he implied he did? You can also ask about training programs the candidate indicated he had completed. If you don’t hear about skills, knowledge or other attributes you need, ask!

I find it useful to explain the duties of the job the candidate is seeking, and then ask the reference if she thinks the candidate can succeed in that position, or if there are any concerns about the applicant performing that job. 

Just as interviewees hate the "what is your greatest weakness" question (really, who’s going to answer that question honestly?) references often won’t be comfortable with it, either. Instead, I reframe the question. I ask, "If there were one area in which you feel John could improve, what would it be?" 
Always ask open-ended questions that require the reference to describe events, accomplishments, and difficulties. Ask for examples and explanations. Don’t just skim over questions where you get a vague or uncertain answer, probe further, ask more questions, clarify the response.

Finally, making it more of a conversation than an interrogation will make it far easier and more productive. Asking a simple "tell me about Jane" can sometimes open the flood gates and give you a wealth of information. You might be surprised what people will tell you.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Third Party Harassment?

Are we responsible for the guy (or gal) who delivers our water??

Most likely, yes. Third party harassment is prohibited under federal law. The EEOC’s regulations state "An employer may be held liable for the actions of non-employees, with respect to harassment of employees in the workplace, where the employer knew of or should have known of the conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action." We all know, or should know, what illegal harassment means in our workplaces and how we should handle it. But are we as familiar when the culprit isn’t an employee? How about a customer, a vendor, a repair person, or a patient or client? 

We’re probably all familiar with instances where a vendor or sales rep behaves inappropriately toward an employee, usually in a not so thinly veiled sexual manner. The occasional one-off may not be actionable, although certainly offensive. However, persistent and severe harassment must be dealt with appropriately.

In 2014, Dal-Tile Corp. found out the hard way. In Freeman v. Dal-Tile Corp., Freeman was a customer service representative who interacted daily with a sales rep of a customer of Dal-Tile. Over a period of three years, she endured some very ugly racial and sexual harassment from him. While she reported the incidents, her employer did not take appropriate action and allowed the behavior to continue. Freeman sued. While the district court initially granted summary judgement to Dal-Tile, the 4th Circuit overturned that ruling and applied a negligence standard to the employer for a hostile work environment.

Another more recent case, EEOC v. Costco gives more weight to the responsibility of employers. For over a year, a Costco employee was subjected to unwanted physical touching, unwanted requests for dates and overly intrusive personal questions from a customer. The court found that "Costco failed to take reasonable steps to stop the harassment, noting that Costco waited more than a year to ban the customer from the store".

What you should do:
  • Review your anti-harassment policy. Ensure it covers third-party harassment; what it is, that you prohibit it, and make clear what an employee needs to do to report such behavior.
  • Train your managers and supervisors. Ensure they understand this is prohibited conduct that they cannot take lightly. Include third-party harassment in your training for employees as well.
  • Investigate any complaint just as seriously as you would if it involved an employee.
  • Act promptly. If your investigation shows harassment occurred take appropriate action that is designed to resolve the problem. You may need to bar a customer or client from your premises or require a replacement for a contractor or service provider. This will be a difficult conversation to have with a customer or vendor, but half-hearted attempts will not solve the problem, just as they don’t when the harasser is an employee.
  • As always, inform the complainant what steps you took, and encourage him or her to report any further incidents.

And remember, the customer (or vendor, client, patient, etc.) is not always right.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pokémon Go(ing) in your Workplace?

Love it or hate it, it’s here

For the record, I’m not into this game or even understand the appeal (and I’m ok with that), but apparently millions of others are really into it. According to a recent Forbes poll, 69% of adults say they play the game at work. I’m not entirely sure you can claim that 69% of people actually work at work on any particular day (ok, that might be an exaggeration). But having that many folks playing during the workday could be a bit of a problem. While playing during a lunch break might be fine, running around catching imaginary creatures when you’re supposed to be working is certainly an issue.

If you don’t know, Pokémon Go is like a virtual scavenger hunt which lets players hunt for 151 different characters on their phones using augmented reality. In other words, rather than sitting on the couch and collecting the characters, (or sitting at their desk working) players have to explore the real world with smart phones and find them at coffee shops, grocery stores – and yes, even their jobs.

While it’s too early to have any data on this game, Challenger, Gray & Christmas reveal data that March Madness, for comparison, results in productivity slowdowns that result in $1.3 billion lost per hour, while Cyber Monday losses are a much smaller $450 million.

Causing disruption at work is one issue with the game, but there have been numerous incidents of some rather serious mishaps that occurred because the player(s) was too absorbed in the game to recognize danger.
  • 40 people were playing the game in a cemetery near Scranton, PA, and didn’t realize the gates had closed and they were locked inside. Probably not what they had in mind for the evening.
  • In Bangor, Maine, a man who was playing on the street got into an argument with a woman driving a car, and the woman then hit him with her car.
  • Illegal immigration probably isn’t part of the game, but several Canadian teens found themselves detained  for illegal border crossing.
  • Shayla Wiggins found a dead body, close to the Wyoming Highway 789 Bridge. Wiggins told CNN she was trying to get water Pokémon.
  • There have been several reports of people being robbed while playing, like these stories of "Pokémon GO" players in Maryland and on Long Island.

Hopefully, you won’t be experiencing this type of issue in your workplace. But you might face some challenges keeping productivity in line and even working to ensure your company security isn’t compromised.
In many senses, controlling this type of workplace distraction is no different than others. 
  • Make sure your social media policy (you have one, right?) rules apply to games like Pokémon Go. Define social media in your policy broadly. For those employees who are issued company phones, you may even want to have your IT folks limit the ability to download certain types of apps.
  • Write and/or review policies dealing with use of personal devices and personal use of the company internet during work time and the need to limit the drain on productive work time.
  • Review policies and remind employees of the dangers of distracted driving (or even distracted walking!). Players may be prone to bumping into others, walking into walls, and slipping and falling, which can lead to preventable injuries. 
  • Apply your policies, and apply them consistently.
  • Should you find that your facility or a nearby area has become a pokéstop, you can put up signage to warn off trespassers. You can even request the removal of pokéstops and gyms if it becomes an issue.
Some businesses are embracing this fad as an easy marketing tool. A great example is Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The museum is finding that Pokémon Go can go a long way to showcase its collection to the general public.
"As general admission to Crystal Bridges is free, it will cost you nothing to visit the Museum and rack up your Pokémon captures, and you can enjoy some terrific American art as you go," the museum says. "We only ask that you be careful and be aware of your surroundings as you do battle so you don’t inadvertently back into an artwork or trip up a fellow museum-goer."
Another, possibly somewhat unexpected, positive of the game, is the benefits it’s having with kids on the Autism Spectrum. Now, that’s a win!
We can certainly accentuate the positives of encouraging people to actually get outside walk around and explore their own communities. Just remember to get that project done on time, and don’t walk off a cliff or ram a police car.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Making your Leadership Development more Meaningful

Use Leadership Competency Models

As I noted in this previous post, the American Society for Training & Development revealed that after leadership training only about 15% of the skills learned are actually transferred to real life situations in the workplace. Leadership development programs often focus more on theory and ideas rather than on action and learning by doing.

Clearly, we’re structuring leadership development programs in the wrong way. The earlier post notes adult learning theory and how that applies to the failures of most programs. However, regardless of how you structure and present a program, you have to choose the right participants, those who are likely to succeed in leadership roles.

One way to choose your future leaders is to develop competency models. If you don’t focus on developing and encouraging the skills that are most needed and take the time to define what success looks like for each leadership position and how you will measure it, your efforts will be challenging at best, and failures at worst. It will be very difficult to determine when someone has achieved it and your process for hiring and promoting will suffer.

In short, leadership competencies are skills and behaviors that contribute to superior performance in the role of a leader at any level.

This article in Mindtools walks you through the process of developing a competency model. Three principals are identified as critical in developing your framework:

Involve the people doing the work – These frameworks should not be developed solely by HR people, who don't always know what each job actually involves. Nor should they be left to managers, who don't always understand exactly what each member of their staff does every day. To understand a role fully, you have to go to the source – the person doing the job – as well as getting a variety of other inputs into what makes someone successful in that job.

Communicate – People tend to get nervous about performance issues. Let them know why you're developing the framework, how it will be created, and how you'll use it. The more you communicate in advance, the easier your implementation will be.

Use relevant competencies – Ensure that the competencies you include apply to all roles covered by the framework. If you include irrelevant competencies, people will probably have a hard time relating to the framework in general. For example, if you created a framework to cover the whole organization, then financial management would not be included unless every worker had to demonstrate that skill. However, a framework covering management roles would almost certainly involve the financial management competency.

A study by HBR shows that differing levels of leadership require different skills. It also shows that the universal skills may vary in important at different levels. 

Why do competency models matter? Your organization most likely has corporate values. Those values, as guiding principles, should have a corresponding set of behaviors that are used when hiring, promoting and evaluating performance. A model will help you align actual behavior with your culture and business strategy. Being able to coach an employee on where she failed to meet a defined set of expectations or where there is room for improvement is a cornerstone to effective performance management and employee development. Conversely, being able to tell her specifically which behaviors are leading to her success will encourage a continuation and development of those behaviors beyond the current situation. Employee satisfaction and engagement are beneficiaries of such clear standards and communication.

Building a strong and effective leadership succession plan is much easier when you have a clearly defined set of skills, knowledge and abilities. Only when you have defined these items can you create a meaningful training program and help you to choose the best employees to be considered for future leadership roles.

Helping you to identify which employees have the needed skills – which can then be developed in training so they can be properly applied in situations a leader may face – is beneficial to creating and maintaining your leadership development efforts. Likewise, your efforts at building the model will help you to determine if your current recruiting and selection process is meeting your needs. Leadership is important at many levels of an organization. If you’re not selecting or promoting employees that have the basic skills you seek, your efforts at leadership development will be empty.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Theater of the Absurd – continued

Sometimes you just have to shake your head in wonder at how any progress can be made on any issue when federal agencies continue to contradict one another and work at cross purposes.

Last year, the US Chamber issued a report titled Theater of the Absurd. If you have any interest in this topic at all, no matter which side you’re on, this is a good read and has gotten far less attention than it deserves. The report outlines some of the craziness that has become the National Labor Relations Board and their decisions on common employer policies and practices.

So, what now? A recent ruling by the NLRB tells us. After complaints filed by union members about some of T-Mobile’s policies, the NLRB went on the hunt and dug into the company’s employee handbook and other policies. As has been common, the board found at least one policy it didn’t like and ruled to be illegal:

"[T-Mobile] expects all employees to behave in a professional manner that promotes efficiency, productivity, and cooperation. Employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, co-workers, and management."

You might ask "what’s wrong with this"? The NLRB says that this policy could be construed to restrict employees’ rights to "concerted activities"; for instance, engaging in controversial discussions about wages or working conditions, including discussions about unions. Seriously? Here’s a good article in the National Law Review, which includes a link to the ruling.

Now for (more of) the absurdity. Recently the EEOC came out with the result of its study on anti-harassment training. I wrote about it here. In the report, the EEOC describes several options employers have to make anti-harassment training more effective. One of the options is described thusly:

"Workplace civility training" focuses on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally, rather than eliminating offensive behavior based on protected characteristics protected under anti-discrimination laws.
The agency also noted that it should – not will, not must, but should have a dialogue with the NLRB about its stance on workplace "civility codes". Ahem…….. When is that discussion going to take place? 

Talk about working at cross purposes! How is an employer supposed to create a harassment-free, bullying-free, respect for others environment when it risks getting nailed by one regulatory agency if it does, and another one if it doesn’t? Rock and a hard place, folks. Absurd.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The “Compliment Sandwich”

Nothing will make it taste good

I’m still surprised when this tactic is used, and surprised at the number of articles that recommend using it. A "compliment sandwich" is where you put the meat of criticism in the middle of two pieces of complementary bread. The idea is that you soften the blow of the criticism by giving the recipient praise before and after you deliver some negative feedback concerning performance or behavior.

What those who recommend this seem to consistently fail to understand is that you undermine your effort at performance management and most likely damage your relationship with your employee. You lose credibility and respect. Simply put, people are not that stupid.

I get it. Giving negative feedback, having to correct poor performance or inappropriate behavior is tough. It’s uncomfortable. It’s also necessary. Here are some problems and risks with using this approach:

  1. Your motive is transparent. And not in a good way. Most people know what you’re trying to do – make them feel "good" about the coming criticism. Hearing the initial compliment will only serve to make them brace for the bad news, thereby nullifying your effort. Others will see your compliments as insincere, again undermining your effort. In this case, a spoonful (or two) of sugar will not make the medicine go down any easier.
  2. Your message will get lost. What is your purpose for these conversations? You want to correct inadequate performance or behavior. There will be many who will only hear the compliments; completely missing the message you want them to get about the true situation. Your effort fails to accomplish what you intend, which is to provide constructive feedback in order to improve performance. People often only "hear" the beginning and end of such conversations, not the middle.
  3. You alienate and lose respect. Your employees are adults. You should be treating them as adults. If you have negative feedback to give, just give it. Again, they see through your transparent efforts to somehow make this easier to hear. When you reach the point of having these conversations, you will often find yourself reaching to find something complimentary to say. This is only too clear to the employee. Do you really want Joe to come away from the meeting thinking "the best thing he could say about me was that I come in on time?!"

If you have to give negative feedback – give it. Be clear and direct about the problem. Be clear and direct about what your expectations are for performance going forward, and about the consequences if that doesn’t happen. Then, you can have an actual conversation about how those expectations can be met, engaging the employee is coming up with the methods for the solution. If you feel the need to add praise to the conversation, this may be the only appropriate time to do so. Talk about times and situations where the employee was successful in similar circumstances and solicit ideas about how he/she can apply those methods to the current problem.

Praise and compliments should not be marred by including them with criticism. Give that praise when it’s warranted, all by its lonesome. It will have a much more positive (and intended) effect when not stuffed with negative meat. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Asking the Right Questions?

of the right people, and listening to the answers……

In order to succeed, leaders ask a lot of questions. How do we grow sales/improve our company/expand our service or product line? How do we improve employee morale and *gasp* employee engagement? Asking is great. Listening – really listening – to the answers is better. But are we asking the right questions of the right people?

Maybe not. There are hundreds of articles, and probably hundreds of companies out there, all wanting to sell you their theory about how to improve employee engagement (whatever that really is) and many have a product they say will get you there. What perk will you add to your menu of goodies available to employees hoping to see a jump in their "happiness" quotient? Will it be branded awards, concierge services, catered lunches or foosball tables? How about a roadmap for how to create the ultimate employee involvement committee? Or maybe a themed employee picnic is more your style. The thing is, none of these will get you anywhere you really want to go.

Asking the right questions and listening to the answers has a better chance of helping you reach your goal, whether that’s a sales, growth or employee-related goal. It’s also equally important to ask yourself these questions before asking any of your employees.

Is the company structured properly? You want to determine if your structure is both effective and efficient. Are roles and responsibilities widely understood and are decision rights clear, are the right people in the right roles? Ask your leadership team these questions and listen to the answers.

Do employees fully understand our overall strategy and how they contribute to that strategy? You want to know whether employees really see and feel the connection between what they do and the strategy and mission of the company. Effective leaders regularly communicate what the company strategy is and work to ensure that individual goals and responsibilities positively contribute to the desired outcomes.

Do policies, systems, and processes reinforce the strategy, culture, and results we desire? Look at employee policies, compensation and benefit systems, performance management systems, and promotion guidelines to ensure they support what you expect of employees. Look at usage and participation in benefit plans, and ask employees which they value and which they are indifferent to. Delve into employees’ perceptions about various policies to determine if they understand the purpose of the policies. You may find that communication about the "whys" may help understanding and buy-in.

How does the community perceive our company? And the companion question can be what does our company stand for in the community? The answers to these questions can have a dramatic impact on attracting great talent and also on how current employees feel about and are connected to your organization.

Following along with the "what do we stop doing, start doing, change?" questions that we should be asking frequently, we should be digging deeper. Are we (our product/service) relevant? How can we remain that way? Are we measuring the right things to get to these answers? What do our customers say about us?

Sometimes we need to identify what exactly the issue is when we perceive a problem, since we’re likely seeing the symptoms and not necessarily the cause. Asking the right people:

  • What is it like to work here?
  • What seems to be the trouble?
  • What do you make of this situation?
  • What concerns you the most about the current issue?
  • What do you think is your main obstacle?
  • What is holding you back from completing this project/furthering your career?
Identifying the desired outcome and recognizing there may be some difference between your ideal outcome and that of any particular employee can give you information about what motivates your staff and help get you to a mutually beneficial goal.

  • How do you want this to turn out?
  • What is your desired outcome?
  • What benefits would you like to get out of this project?
  • What do you propose?
  • What’s your plan for getting there?
  • What else do you need to consider?

Regardless of what questions you ask, keep them open-ended. If a question can be answered with "yes" or "no" it’s not likely to generate discussion and rarely yields any insight. By asking open-ended questions, you can get far more interesting insights.

Don’t ask "do you like working here?" ask "what about working here causes you to stay?" 

Nearly every decision we make is based on at least one assumption. If you build on faulty assumptions, your conclusion will be faulty as well. Ask – both yourself and your staff - "What are we assuming in this situation?" You need to determine if what your employees are "assuming" about your company’s direction is correct and if your assumption about their understanding of your mission is correct. Get on the same page.

Leading people to their own insights is far more effective to building commitment than only telling them your thoughts. Asking about lessons learned can be very revealing. "What can we learn from this experience that might be useful to us in the future?" And this question works when things go well, and when things don’t go as well as planned. 

Learning to love, or at least tolerate, the sound of silence is advantageous in getting employees who may be somewhat reticent to express their thoughts. Most of us get uncomfortable when things get quiet. We feel compelled to fill the space with chatter. You can let this work to your advantage by just not giving in to that compulsion to talk. When you do that, you may find that people volunteer an amazing amount of information that you would have never gotten any other way.

The key is always the right thing at the right time, and with the right people. Asking the right questions of the right people, really listening to the answers and then implementing what you can will get you far more than that foosball table.