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.


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.

Senior Leadership Teams: : What it takes to make them great. (Book Review)

I was asked to review this book by the Health Service Journal and my review was published last month.

As a leader, have you ever considered whether you really need a leadership team? This question is often ignored or the leader assumes that they’ve answered it, until they realise that their leadership team has become dysfunctional. 

This book commences by asking this question, followed by five further questions about the purpose and membership of a top-team and how this has an impact on the organisation’s performance.   The answers to these questions can provide valuable insight into a team’s understanding of how well they are working together. 

The authors provide a template which, in their view, is the foundation of a successful team.  In order to establish a high-performing team, six necessary conditions are required:  three essential (real team, right players and compelling direction) and three enabling (solid structure, supportive environment, team coaching).  The authors suggest that all six conditions do not have to be in place when a team is formed, but evidence of the team’s potential to obtain them is a pre-requisite. 

The last section of the book offers four key competencies which the authors believe are essential for a top team to possess. The book also describes four different types of leadership teams (information, consultative, co-ordinating, or decision-making) and how they should be deployed in an organisation.  The authors provide numerous case studies, although the majority are American and only two relate to healthcare.

I would recommend this book to newly-appointed Chief Executives and their top teams.  Organisational Development professionals will find the book useful when developing staff engagement or communication strategies within an organisation. 

This book is realistic:  it recognises that the journey from a collection of senior managers to a high performing top-team can be hard and painful, but ultimately rewarding.  There is nothing new in this book, but it stops and makes you think.

Overall rating: 4.5 stars


Authors:  Wageman, Ruth, Nunes, Debra, A., Burruss, James, A., Hackman, J. Richard

Publisher:  Harvard Business School Press

 You can purchase this book from Amazon

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 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?

Think Twice Before Pressing Send

Recently I have been inundated with stories from clients and friends about emails that have got them into trouble –   the ones where the content of the email has reached the wrong audience.  You know the type of email that I’m talking about as we’ve all done it.

The one that sticks most clearly in my mind was the time I recieved a briefing on a piece of OD work that one of the internal trainers wanted to deliver.  I was not impressed by their briefing, although the exact details now escape me.  What I do remember is that I wrote “What the?” and although I meant to send this onto a colleague, I pressed “Reply to Sender” instead.   I (luckily?) realised as the message worked it’s way through cyber-space. I hastily constructed an end to that sentence which I rapidy sent off to the trainer with an added message “Sorry, I pressed send too soon”.  I think I got away with it, as we’re still in touch many years later!

The consequences of such actions can lead to conflict or even grievances.  This can be costly both in terms of time and cost for organisations.   To avoid any issues, consider the following:

1.  The third-party perspective:  although you are sending an email to someone you trust, they may inadvertently send this email onto somebody else.  This could be for a number of reasons:  a classic one is  because they forget to remove the old messages at the bottom of the email.

2.  If the content is sensitive, take the message off-line:  Pick up the phone and have that conversation instead.

3.  Make sure the subject matter is factual, or that any subjective comments can be evidenced.

4. Consider Data Protection Issues:  if the  subject of the email is about an employee, they can request copies of such emails under Data Protection legislation.

5.  Double-check everything:  check the addressees, check the content.  With difficult or sensitive correspondance I often complete a draft and then re-visit it a few hours later with a fresh set of eyes before releasing the document.

But the morale of this blog is:  just think twice before pressing send.

Post script:  13 May 2010:

For an interesting blog on email usage and associated statistics, check out

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?