Blogger’s Block

Once in a while I find out someone I know “outside” my Social Media world has picked up and read my blog:  a colleague will mention it in an email exchange, a supplier will mention it in a telephone conversation.

For some reason, when this happens, I find it hard to write the next post.   The reason is that I have “the fear” – fear that I’m going to write something too risky or that will breach confidentiality.  Knowing someone has read my blog makes me question myself and seeds of doubt grow in my mind.

I take great care whenever I write a post.  I might get my inspiration from an event or a conversation, but all my stories are transformed in such  a way that it no longer resembles the reality which inspired me.  My characters (“friends”) are fictional, and over the last six months their names have all started with the letter “D”  (had you noticed?).    The whole point of each post is to make a point:   it isn’t to expose, humiliate or demonise any particular person or any particular organisation.

There are lots of subjects that I want to write about.  But I can’t.  It would breach confidentiality, or I would end up in muddy legal waters.   I have a rule of never writing about anything that I’m currently working on.  And there’s some topics that are still too close to projects that I have completed, but I still feel uncomfortable discussing them in a post.  It’s times like these that I really wish I was anonymous, as then I think I would have more freedom to write.

Having said that, I enjoy writing this blog and it has benefits.  One client took me on because they had read my blog and liked it.  I find that  my relationships with new colleagues or other contacts develop more quickly if they have read my blog as they understand how I think and they know my views.  (The down-side is that our relationship isn’t on an equal basis, as I don’t have the same background information on them, but this is easily overcome).

One time a coachee quoted my blog in the middle of a coaching session.  (It took me a while to realise!)  We went on to use the subject matter of that particular post as part of the coaching session. I honestly believe it helped the coachee develop a greater level of insight into the issue.

I know the fear is ridiculous.  It often takes two to three weeks to over-come the fear.  In that time I struggle to write posts, but continue to do so to meet my self-determined target of at least one post per week.    I won’t let the fear beat me.

 

The Ask vs the Guess Culture – Mark II

In my wanderings around Twitterverse this week, I came across (what I now understand is) a cult blog post:

“What’s the Middle Ground between “F.U.” and “Welcome”?

It all starts of like a normal blog posting…but half-way through the theory of the Ask vs Guess Culture makes an appearance.  In essence, it is as follows:

“In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes.”

The author of this particular comment (“tangerine”) invites the reader to review previous comments to demonstrate his (or is it her?) point:  it’s easy to see who’s an Asker and who’s a Guesser.

But I think the theory goes beyond these two types, and this is based on my own experiences with friends, colleagues and dare I say it, family.  I’d like to suggest two more:

  • The Presumpter.  This person is an evolved form of the Asker.  They just expect to stay at your house.  They turn-up un-announced and sometimes at the most inappropriate times.  They stay beyond their welcome.

 

  • The Ostrich:  this is the kind of person who wanders through life without even thinking about how their friends might be able to help them out.  They just don’t even ask.  And afterwards you say to them:   “You didn’t tell me you were in town this weekend?  If I’d known I’ve had suggested you’d stay at our place.”

This theory easily translates into the workplace.   If we look around our workplaces, we can find lots of Askers, Guessers, and the Ostrichs will be the ones who don’t display any initiative.  The theory can be a big of fun, but as “tangerine” writes in his/her comments, it can lead to conflict. 

Next time you have an employee dispute, consider whether it’s all just down to how they ask their questions.

Are ice-breakers naff?

At the start of any training event, it’s likely that the participants will have to engage in an ice-breaker. Many of us (me included) dread it: we don’t want to be embarrassed or made to stand out of the crowd by saying or doing something stupid.

With this in mind, when I’m designing training courses or small workshops, I think long and hard about how to ease the participants into the session.

Last year I read Nancy Kline’s Time to Think, which had a profound impact on me. Subsequently I wrote a book review, which you can read the book review here or here (HSJ).

The reason I only gave Nancy’s book four stars is that, whilst I liked what she was saying  (enough to put some of it into practice) I didn’t truly believe in the magic that she was describing.

Nancy starts every meeting by asking the attendees to do two things:  
a) state one thing that they did last week which made them feel proud of themselves.

and

b) turning to the person on the left, to say one thing that you really respect them for.

Everybody gets to speak twice before the meeting has even begun.  For the first 10 minutes, every comment made is a positive one. The impact?  There is a dynamic shift in the room. Everybody feels relaxed, upbeat, positive and willing to contribute.

Last week I was working with a team that has had some difficult few years, has just recently has turned the corner and is on the road to recovery.  We started with this ice-breaker, and by the time we finished there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  Not  because they were sad, but because of the overwhelming emotions they were feeling. They all liked each other already, just nobody had expressed it before. And they liked what they heard.

It was magical. Just like Nancy said it would be.

Going back to the start, I believe that on the whole ice-breakers are naff.  Why do trainers and facilitators like to torture us by making participants behave like animals – literally?  And what purpose do these particular interventions serve?

From my point of view, there’s no reason why we can’t strive to find respectful and effective ice-breakers like the one I’ve described above.    Those trainers who don’t just let our industry down.

Is Good Customer Service Essential or Desirable?

I was quite distressed by an event that happened earlier this week. An event that could have been avoided by good customer service. My husband and I subsequently started to debate about whether it is appropriate to expect front-line member of staff to have basic customer service skills.

My view, having recruited a huge number of customer service reps for mobile phone companies along with having commissioned a significant number of skills development courses is that everybody is capable of demonstrating good customer service.  It doesn’t matter what you’re paid or your capabilities.  If it doesn’t come naturally, you can be taught how to provide good customer service.

My husband took the opposite view.  He felt my expectations of a member of staff involved in the incident this week were too high, as they are “only” a junior member of staff. Sensing that I was taking this argument personally, he let me win (this time), but I still feel passionately about this subject and hence this post.

In essence, when a member of staff encounters an angry customer  their approach should be:

1) Identify why the customer is angry;

2) Apologise (irrespective);

3) Determine what the customer would like to see as an outcome;

4) Establish next steps to either resolve the issue or alleviate the concern / worry / anxiety of the customer.

For me, this isn’t hard sums. What I do question is why some people think it’s acceptable that staff working in the NHS or the education sector can be excused from having the same level of customer service skills than those you find  in more commercial sectors?  I don’t believe that it’s desirable.  I think it’s essential that all our front-line staff have this essential skill.

Does Your Relationship With The TUs Represent Good Staff Engagement?

The local TU representative (staff side representative) carries the enormous responsibility of being an advocate of the local members of his department or professional group.  In an ideal scenario, your staff side rep should be able to reliably inform the Trust on what the local members think of proposals and service developments.   It is not uncommon to “test the temperature” around a new idea by running it past (informally) the local staff side rep first.

In organisations (and I mainly refer to NHS Trusts) where there is a sense of trust between management and staff side, this relationship can be dynamic, collaborative and very constructive.  Where there is little trust, the organisation can find itself with a dysfunctional and disruptive workforce.  I have been struck this week by how important staff side relationships are.

Let’s take Job Evaluation:  The NHS has a national, bespoke system called Agenda for Change.  Implemented in 2005, thousands of managers, HR staff and staff side reps were trained in this system.  It’s not a perfect system, but it has helped to reduce the potential of pay inequity and attempts to bring transparency to a creative art form.

Although there is national guidance, I find that with each Trust I work with there is local interpretation: this ranges from how each factor is scored to how the process is carried out.    For example:

  • The Trusts where there is poor staff side relationship, the process is long and drawn-out. 
  • In other Trusts, management have worked with staff side to streamline the process. 

In one Trust, the time it takes to evaluate a set of 10 posts is 8 times longer than another one!  This has an obvious impact on productivity and carries a significant cost to the organisation.

The key to driving efficiences lies with the local staff side.  There needs to be an element of trust between all parties with any radical changes to an established system. 

The Trust that has significantly stream-lined its process has high staff engagement.  The staff trust the process and their local representatives to ensure that the right outcome is reached.

On the other hand, the Trust who has a long, labourious process has poor staff engagement.  The local staff side are fighting to protect the status quo as they fear that the staff may be disadvantaged if any efficiences are built into the system.

Job evaluaton may seem a dry topic to reflect upon in relation to staff engagement, but the underlying outcome is money.  And money matters to staff.  If staff are engaged  they will allow their local staff side reps to work collaboratively with managers.  This can only result in a win-win for everybody.

I’ve written about Staff Engagement before, and my views haven’t changed.  It’s important to recognise that staff engagement permeates through-out all elements of the organisation, and it all starts with the Trade Unions.

How To…….Write A Reference

“I have a member of staff who’s applied for another job.  Their new company has approached me for a reference.  The only problem is….I have nothing good to say about them.  What do I write?”

A reference request for a highly performing employee is never a problem to write.  It’s this opposite situation where managers often come unstuck.   Sometimes, you’ll just want to put your head in your hands and wonder “Where do I start?”

In fact, references do not have to be lengthy.  All you need to confirm are the employee’s basic employment details. (It’s worth checking to see if this is your company policy).  However, should you be in the position whereby you’re asked to provide a fuller reference, these are my tips:

1.  Start by confirming their post title and length of service.  It is always useful to confirm your relationship with the member of staff, particularly if it has changed during the period that you have known them (eg I was a colleague of x from June 2005 until January 2009, when I became his/ her line manager).

2.   Outline the key duties of their role.

3. Stick to the facts, or if you need to write a subject comment, qualify it with evidence.

4.  If you have been actively managing this member of staff and have been giving them regular feedback on their work, they will be aware of the areas where they still need to develop.*

5.  Ask the employee if there are any achievements of note that they would like to you include in the reference.

*Although all references are confidential, in the spirit of transparency I always share the reference I have written with my member of staff.  Even the poorly performing ones. 

Writing references can be, and should be, easy.  The key is your relationship with this member of staff.   References are never a problem if you have been actively performance managing your staff.  

To avoid any sticky reference requst moments in the future, invest the time in your staff now!

What’s the point of Exit Interviews?

A recent post by the Evil HR lady was about Exit Interviews http://bit.ly/9jTZnu: the different options available and getting valid reasons for leaving from departing staff.  There were some excellent suggestions for gathering real data, but I want to take it one step further…..

My view is there is little point in undertaking Exit Interviews.  I don’t believe they represent value for money.   Whether they are outsourced (ie through on-line exit interview packages) or done in house (face to face or via paper surveys), they take up considerable resources.  I commented on the Evil HR Lady’s post saying that I had recently recommended the implementation of on-line exit interviews to an organisation I was working with.  I’m not be contradictory here.  I’ll explain my position:

As an HR professional, I strive to deliver best practice in whatever project I’m working on.   Last year I was engaged to deliver a Staff Engagement Strategy within limit resources.   All the research on staff engagement states that undertaking exit interviews is one small, but crucial, element of such a strategy.  I therefore considered the various options and decided that going on-line was the most cost efficient option with the best potential for gathering significant data that could be reported to the Board. 

In the background is a whole raft of research out there including:

  • the majority of people leave their jobs is because of their manager / management;
  • a third of employees leave within a year following a bad appraisal;
  • Induction crisis (ie a poorly managed induction or poor recruitment, or both) is one of the main reasons why employees leave their jobs within the first year;

Therefore, exit interviews are seen as a way of gathering data to prevent the departure of valued staff.   A good exit interview should have an appropriate balance of data and anecdote – similar to that you would find in a good staff survey.   You need the data to be able to tangible measure against any pre-determined metrics.  The anecdotes provide context to the data.   And as the Evil HR Lady says, organisations need to act on this data.  And in my experience, many don’t and give excuses such as “The data isn’t meaningful enough for us to take action”.  

Therefore, a year older and a year wiser, I think I would now try and argue the fact that where resources are scarce (as they are in the NHS), exit interviews are not cost-effective.  Instead, I would support two surveys:

  1. An annual staff survey which would include staff’s intention to leave within the next twelve months and the reasons for this;
  2. An “Induction Crisis” survey, to be undertaken by staff who were within three to six months of starting with an organisation. 

The whole point is about keeping valued staff;  with exit interviews  we trying to close the stable door after the stallion has bolted.  So what’s the point?

Moving difficult staff isn’t the answer

This weekend, I had lunch with a good friend.  Duncan is the Head of a Learning & Development department for a business in the City, and his team sit within the HR Department.  We don’t normally talk shop, but Duncan’s currently managing a “difficult employee”, and is receiving absolutely no help from his HR colleagues.

I’ve come across such difficult individuals before: One member of staff that I had the luxury of managing, many moons ago, had the misfortune of loosing a close relative every six months.  In between she would also experienced a range of terrible personal tragedies.  And when she ran out of ideas, she put in a grievance.    I was lucky enough to have a solid line-manager who decided to look into her situation more carefully: the death certificates did not seem to exist and the counter-fraud team were unable to unearth any police incident numbers. Finally my boss “called her bluff”.   At that point, the employee gracefully handed in her notice.

Duncan described to his “difficult employee’s” antics to me, and she is demonstating similar behaviour.   Her negative behaviour is becoming destructive for both Duncan and the other members of his team.   But their HR department are not prepared to support Duncan in taking a tough line with this member of staff.  With a significant sickness absence record (not really a surprise), the “difficult employee” has little chance of being successful in finding another job.   However, light is at the end of the tunnel:  she has just applied for a transfer to another part of the organisation.  The Head of HR is endorsing the application and so it is likely that soon she will move from Duncan’s team, only to be a burden for another part of the organisation.

Duncan is incensed by what is happening:  with an HR team who are advising a “hands-off” management approach,  he feels paralysed by the situation.  He is also angry that the HR team aren’t demonstrating best practice by actively support him in managing this difficult member of staff.  For me, I feel that the HR team in this organisation is letting  our profession down.  And whilst City institutions continue to handsomely reward their Executives (which I have no issue with, but then I don’t always agree with the Daily News) they are also continuing to waste money and resources by not appropriately managing their staff.  Surely it is cheaper to dismiss this individual and then fight any claims via an Employment Tribunal than to retain them and their difficult behaviour in employment indefinitely?

I have been lucky in my career to have worked with strong and professional HR and Occupational Health practitioners who have supported me when I’ve been working on cases concerning difficult employees.  It’s our responsibility as HR practitioners to consider all the options, the risks and benefits of each, as well as the cost implications when we work with line-managers who are trying to manage “difficult employees”.  And let’s face it, moving staff is the easy solution.   The one thing that I truly believe is that in such situations moving the difficult employee isn’t the answer.  Whilst it might seem to solve today’s problem, it does not help anybody (the manager, the employee, the team or the organisation)  in the long-term.   So why do it?

Managing Relationships at Work

There’s been some debate recently in the Guardian newspaper about “How to be a Good Leader and Develop Relationships at Work”. I thought I’d use this week’s blog to outline my thoughts on this.

For me, it’s about developing a connection with the other person, and doing this before an issue arises – whether it be an issue relating to performance, or as a result of organisational change.

For example, I managed one member of staff with whom I had nothing in common, with the exception that we both loved “Big Brother”. So every summer, we would catch up every day to talk about the activities and highlights in the house the day before. For 8 – 12 weeks (depending on the length of the series) each year we connected for five minutes each day. For the rest of the year, we didn’t have anything to talk about. Occaisionally we discussed the lastest news we’d heard, and once she asked if she could take a career break if she was successful in becoming a house-mate. But in essence, this connection meant that we had a relationship.

Having an avid interest in “Big Brother” meant that:
a) we both had something to say on the topic – so it wasn’t a one sided conversation;
b) that we wanted to hear to each other’s point of view: we showed respect and “actively listened”;
c) we were able to enter into friendly debates – as the subject matter was neutral. The debates were animated, but in a healthy and mature way.

In essence, by choosing a neutral topic that we were both passionate about meant that we were able to develop our relationship. We didn’t have a superficial relationship, we had a relationship that was able to withstand vivicious and lively interactions.

A few years later, this member of staff’s health started to suffer. It was easier for me to manage this situation due to the relationship we had developed. She knew that I would listen to her, that I was being sincere, or that I was telling her a key piece of information that she needed to consider. She knew this as she had seen me communicate with her in this way before and could trust her gut reactions to my messages.

Trying to develop a relationship once there are already signs that it has broken down is so much harder. The individual will not be able to effectively decode your body language or facial expressions as they have no past history with which to compare this data. They feel in their gut mistrust, anxiety or doubt and they have no reference point by which to know whether or not these are the appropriate feelings to have. I would still urge leaders / managers in these situations to continue to build or restore the relationship, but be aware that it will take much longer to reach a place where there is mutual trust and respect.

Every day at work try and “touch base” with every member of your team. Start off with a simple “hello”; asking how they are and what they’ve been up to. Before long, you will both discover something that you have in common. Use this to develop a special connection between you and your member of staff. Developing a relationship with your staff should be this easy.