Monthly Archives: February 2014

Psychological Warfare at Work

These days, we hear about drone strikes, those unmanned weapons swooping in and killing everyone in their path.  The workplace feels the same effect when someone’s engaging in psychological warfare.

Psychological warfare is defined as the use of propaganda and intimidation to destroy the morale of an enemy, who is then too defeated to put up a fight.  And though none of us work for Genghis Kahn, who was notorious for stirring enough fear in folks he met little resistance as he mowed across Asia and Eastern Europe, we have probably worked for and with those who employ similar tactics.

We HR folks need to be on the lookout for this treacherous behavior because the results are devastating.  Sadly, we often figure it out after it’s too late, and we’re looking at the apocalyptic ruins of employees and the business.

I encourage all leaders to manage their employees’ performance.  However, some leaders use this as an out to rid themselves of unwanted employees.  It’s not that they’ve identified poor performance or a bad hire, they simply don’t like the person or feel threatened.  These reasons include an employee who suggests a system or practice that differs from the leader’s idea, or perhaps the employee excels and could one day do the leader’s job.

But let’s say there is some sluggish performance.  Rather than manage this performance and coach the person up, the bosses engaging in psychological warfare will start to push impossible and unclear assignments onto the employee.  Then they’ll complain that the employee can’t do the work.  They’ll also begin a campaign, through emails and conversations, to destroy the employee’s credibility.  They’ll be listening to and logging every word and document while also searching and collecting data to use against the employee.  Their conversations with the employee are meant to slowly erode the employee’s confidence.  They’ll often try to enlist HR’s help, and they’ll be cunning and charismatic enough to convince us if we’re not on guard.

If it’s a co-worker, the war’s subtle and often comes in the form of passive-aggressive yet deliberate sabotage.  I’ve seen the worse, mind you.  I’ve seen people hide needed files.  I’ve seen people tell someone the wrong deadline date.  For example, I recall one colleague who had planned the company picnic for several years.  But under new leadership, responsibilities shifted, and the picnic was given to someone he didn’t like.  Rather than sharing all his contacts and history of the successes and failures of the event, he destroyed the files.  Consequently, his co-worker essentially had to reinvent the wheel.  Also, his co-worker was missing some valuable information that caused the event to be subpar.  This put a chink into his co-worker’s credibility and capability.  The person engaged in psychological warfare was able to gloat, and he employed these tactics again and again.

But if it’s a leader engaging in psychological warfare, your company’s in danger.  I’ve seen leaders fire people with seemingly good reasons only to realize later that the fired employee was set up for failure.  I’ve seen whole groups coming forward and finding it impossible to explain what was going on.  They knew they were being mistreated, and most were working in a constant state of terror.  I’m not saying fear.  I’m saying terror.  See, most of us cannot fathom treating others this way, so it’s unlikely we’ll have any real understanding of the psychological warfare being perpetuated against us.  We’ll only know that we’re unhappy, and we’ll likely have lost our confidence in the process.  We’ll have no real words or data for the abuse and will simply quit.

HR, I know we’re not the office cops, but we’re the ethical gatekeepers.  We’ll need to be on the lookout for the following:

  1. Ongoing volunteer resignations.  During the exit interview, you’ll notice these folks staring out the window in shock.  Truly, they look like war victims.
  2. Employees taking medical leave due to stress and anxiety or simply stress-related illnesses.
  3. Subtle retaliation. Okay, we’re quick to discover blatant retaliation—cutting of hours, demotion, etc.  But what about the other forms?  Piling work on or taking it away.  Micromanagement?  Snide comments to co-workers.  Sudden documentation.  What’s terrifying is that the master of psychological warfare will have his or her ducks in a row and will be able to defend all actions.
  4. A history of inexplicable employee relations issues.  The bad boss will say it’s performance; the employees are just confused.
  5. Collecting words, twisting them, and blaming.   Masters of psychological warfare will take anything you say (HR, you’re not immune), and use it out of context.  They will save emails and track events—using them to their advantage.

Okay, one last thing about these office warlords, they’ll have a following–co-workers or staff who worship them.  It’s almost as if these co-workers or staff have been bitten by a vampire and can now only drink blood.  It’s self-preservation, really.  Becoming a vampire is better than the other choice, death.

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic.  But I don’t think so.  It’s detrimental to any workplace to employ those who don’t care about the wellbeing of others.  I don’t care what type of industry you’re in.  But it’s easier to deal with the outright bullies and inappropriate schmucks, let me tell you.  The office warlords are another story, entirely.

How to Enjoy a Job Interview (No, I’m Not Crazy)


I interview candidates for this job or that every week.  Some act as if I’m about ready to pull their teeth.  Others sweat and stare out the window, as if I’m Medusa and could turn them into a rock with one steely glare.  It must be noted that I’m not a big fan of the “stress interview,” so there’s no good reason to be afraid of me.  I’ll even offer you a cold water and a comfortable seat.  I’ll try to get to know you, too.  The real you.  Most of all, I desperately want to find someone great to fill this open position; therefore, you need to remember I am actually rooting for you.

Given all this, I understand that some people are in a sheer state of terror.  To them, my office has wicked teeth and walls covered in the blood of candidates past.  And this is because I have the power to reject them.  And no matter how many times they might say, “Oh well, their loss,” over and over on the drive home, I’ve somehow validated the other voice we all have in our heads, the gruff bossy one that likes to remind us how we’re all big fat losers.

My guess is that some who were great on paper but who choked during the interview would have ultimately made fantastic employees.  The only thing holding them back was fear.  I’m not talking a case of jitters—I’m talking fear fear.  And if it wasn’t for this fear and all the negative mannerisms fear evokes, they would have landed the job.

So how can we kill the fear?  It seems to have a life of its own, right?  It’s not enough to tell yourself everything will be okay.  “If I don’t get the job, no biggie,” you’ll say.  It’s not enough to picture me in my underwear (incidentally, Millennials, this is a tip from the Brady Bunch, and anyone over 35 should get the reference).  Instead, I believe you’ll need to reimagine the interview altogether.

Consider the word “interview.”  Who, besides job candidates, gets interviewed?  Movie stars.  Authors.  Experts in their fields.   If you were a movie star being interviewed, you might be more comfortable, right?  In fact, you might enjoy taking the opportunity to speak about your films, careers, or philosophy.  You might not be thrilled if you’re an introvert, but it wouldn’t terrify you as much as a job interview would because the rejection component is muffled.  People would likely be begging to interview you and would want to celebrate who you are and what you’ve accomplished.  What if Oprah were interviewing you?  Wouldn’t that be great?

As an interviewer, I try to find the most interesting thing on a resume and celebrate it during the job interview.  I call it the Oprah moment.  For example, I’ll say:  “Wow.  It says here you spent a semester studying in Paris.  What was that like?”  I will ask more technical questions, of course, but the Oprah moment will help dull the scary imagined teeth.

But let’s say the person doing the interviewing doesn’t use my trick.  No matter.  You can still imagine that they are celebrating you.  You can actually enjoy the interview because it’s your chance to talk about what you love to do.  It’s your chance to explain why you are an expert in your field.  It’s your chance to learn a little, too.  Don’t forget to engage the interviewer with a few questions of your own (you see this on talk shows all the time).  While you’re waiting, pretend that I’m the one who’s excited.  Pretend that I can’t wait to hear everything you have to say.

Valentine to My Staff

Before my career in HR, I was a teacher.  In my early twenties, I remember being nervous and wrote a letter to my favorite professor of all time (back then we didn’t have emails).  I asked him what his secret was.  How in the world did he get all his students to learn, to do the work, to participate, to stay engaged?  He wrote back that it boiled down to one simple thing—like your students, he said.  Like them.  Genuinely like them. 

And out of all the advice I received since, his words stuck, and I have lived by them.  Like your staff, delight in their strengths, build them up, encourage their ideas, and they will likely gut themselves for you.  Of course, you’ll encounter some tricky employees who are hard to like, and you’ll have to manage them; however, if you abide by the above advice, your employees will be too satisfied to cause you many problems.  And the problems that do arise, you’ll be able to navigate.

So, I wanted to take a moment to let my staff know how much I liked and appreciated them.  I look forward to working with them every day, as we have swum through some murky waters together, shared some laughs, worked hard, and moved the company forward.  For your hard work, I will give you credit.  For your mistakes, I will take the blame.  Because, to me, this is what it means to me to be a leader.

This week has been difficult, as I have been up to my eyeballs with an investigation after someone complained about a hostile working environment.  This was backed by others with claims of bullying, mistreatment, and unfair practices.  In addition, those who are complaining may have performance issues.  So, yeah, where do we go from here?  Well, the first thing I can say is that the department head lacks basic people management skills, hence the employee relations issues.  On the other hand, she is an expert in her field and has grown the business.  She indeed brings intrinsic value.  All that said, it’s impossible for her manage performance issues if her employees feel abused and there’s discord at work.    We question her credibility when she states the employees aren’t performing.  We question if there’s a secret agenda.  A mess, yes?

In my office, with my fantastic staff, managing performance is a breeze.  Of course, I have bright and dedicated employees with initiative—so that’s part of it.  But, over the years, I have had my share of difficult employees.  There was always something to like about them, though.  I treated them fairly, so when I did have to coach or discipline, there was no question that it was purely about work and not about them, personally.  And that’s one way that I’ve successfully managed performance in students and my staff.

This week, an internal position came open that one of my employees is well qualified for.  It paid at least 10% more than what my employee is making now (I wish I could pay her more).  When I pointed out that she was well suited for the position, she stated that she wouldn’t want to work under this particular person because of her reputation as a bad boss.  My employee’s quality of life was worth more than money. Hopefully, she’ll have my job someday.  Actually, I would be happy if any of my staff had my job and will do my best to get them there.

So, finally, to my staff—Happy Valentine’s Day.  Thank you for all you do and for the value you bring to our department.


The Need for an HR Renaissance

HR’s bad reputation might be stemming from its common unwillingness and inability to accept or comprehend a new and exciting change in everything from business models to employees, themselves.  And rather than be in front of everything cutting edge, they run behind and slow everything down.  The result is that HR has become a department businesses feel obligated to have around despite the lag they are perceived to create.   And obligation typically breeds resentment.   

At a recent conference, I heard my colleagues saying “best practices” again and again.  I kept waiting for someone to tell me what they meant by this.  And the cynic in me couldn’t help but ask what they considered best practices.  Also, are the best practices of yesteryear the best practices for today? 

I would say that for the most part, the answer is no. 

Let’s look at what’s happened since 2009.  It’s only been five years since our country nearly went bust.  It still stings, sure.  And there’s plenty to read out there detailing the continued chilling effect on business and the world.  Yet, as with most disasters, a few phoenixes rose from the ashes.   

  1. Many bad businesses with truly bad practices didn’t survive. Bad bosses and shady business practices are an HR nightmare.  The good news, a lot of those companies with crummy corporate cultures went belly up. 
  2. Because of a new and heightened understanding of risk, managers are expected to treat their employees well.  This is definitely a boost to any HR person worth his or her salt.
  3. Our fundamental values have shifted.  We have all had to stop and examine what’s important and not.  Due to this, for a lot of us, family rose to the top of the list.  Also, we buy products that last rather than perishable fads.  Even the divorce rate went down.  People drink less than they used to and prefer to eat in and take their vacations at home. What this means is that we have some very stable folks out there looking for jobs.  Family-oriented candidates who are keen on keeping their lives simple and focused.  This is good news for HR–not as many hot messes around to stir up trouble in the workplace. 
  4. Wellness has become a priority.  Smoking is so two-thousand and late.  And we’re all interested in being fit.  Note that I’m not saying “thin or skinny.”  I’m saying fit. Healthy.  This is an HR dream come true for benefits purposes, FMLA nightmares, and attendance issues. 
  5. Small start-ups are all the rage.  And they have wild and cutting-edge concepts about traditional hierarchies, office space, and employee-friendly practices.  They’re making it fun to be in HR again by allowing venues where we can innovate and create. 
  6. Millennial workers are blowing the lid off technology and finding ways to optimize processes beyond our imaginations.  Also, they are insisting that work be fun—not a bad thing.  Moreover, they are interested in companies who are philanthropic with deeper meanings.  Interestingly, though you might have heard otherwise, most millennials are not motivated by money.  They’re truly motivated by a fun, challenging, and interesting work environment. And they are absolutely intolerant of bad bosses (as are the best HR peeps).

Given all that’s changed, it’s time for a renaissance, HR.  If you look at everything above, we are going to have to remake ourselves.  So shake off the devil, as my grandmother liked to say, and get to work. 


HR Is Not a Sorting Hat

Here’s how it usually goes.  The manager complains about an employee’s performance to HR.  The employee, meanwhile, is complaining to HR about being mistreated.   And I’m listening to both.   And, generally, both versions sound legitimate.  On one hand, I want leadership to manage performance.  On the other, I want employees to have an awesome work environment.  These are the weekly nuts HR has to crack.  And it’s rarely simple.  No SHRM certificate or HR degree can prepare us for the complicated world of human perceptions and separate versions of the same experience. 

When I was new to HR, I too often relied on a soothsayer tactic.  I’d determine—mostly through discussion and consideration—who was right and who was wrong.  But I’m not a soothsayer.  And I’d sometimes discover that I’d made a poor decision pretending that I was.  I’d perhaps lean too far in favor of the employee crying about their bad boss in my office.  Or, maybe I would lean too far in favor of the manager touting that he or she couldn’t function or move forward with a certain employee.  I was an HR sorting hat.  Those who came to my office became Slytherins or Hufflepuffs. 

Well, that didn’t work.  And luckily I learned to shift into neutral.  Along with that, I created very specific questions and methods to discover what was really going on.  After all, I’m typically not around to directly observe the behavior of the manager or the employee.  Once I have facts, based on the matrix below, I can decide on the best course of action. 

  1. What exactly is the employee concern?  Write down events.  Steer away from what they’re feeling and zoom in on the events that have caused them to feel this way.  Also, ask them if there was anything they said or did that could have impacted the events.  You’ll get a fuller picture.  As you’re asking them about the events, ask them if there was anyone else involved or any witnesses.
  2. What exactly is the manager’s concern?  What specific concerns about the employee’s performance does the manager have?  Again, focus on events and facts.  Are there other employees (supervisors, etc.) that can substantiate performance issues?  Is there data?  Asking questions about what led up to the performance issues will also inform the situation. 
  3. Interview anyone else involved, focusing on the specifics from 1 & 2.  Use your notes from 1 & 2 to design questions for the interviews.  If it is confidential, word it as generally as you can. 
  4. Outline history.  What is the manager’s history?  The employee’s?  If the manager has a history of multiple employee complaints, write this down.  If the opposite is true, add it to your notes.  Make sure you analyze the employee, too.  What qualifications did they have when they took the position?  What is their performance history?  Is there data to support any concerns brought forth?
  5. Align notes, analyze, and determine course of action.  If I’ve done my homework, I can be utterly neutral when determining next steps, whether that be disciplinary action, training, or even separation. 

Employee relations is only difficult when HR is being tasked to believe someone or not believe someone.  I say, “I’m sorry you’re feeling that way.”  I say, “I will address and seek out the best course of action.”  But I never say, “I believe you.”  It’s not my job to believe people or not.  It’s my job to make certain the work environment’s a good one so the business can function to its highest degree.  And I can only do this by staying neutral.   

 HR SortingHAT


Six Ways to Avoid Bad Hires

Recruitment seems squirrelly these days.  We hear that we should hire for skills and knowledge.  Check.  We hear that we should hire for personality.  Check.  We hear that we should hire for corporate culture fit.  Check.  We’re told to go on a talent search.  We’re told to find solid candidates.  We’re told to fill the positions lickety-split or else the business will come crashing down.

So what’s my philosophy?  I hire for culture fit (which includes a personality) and the value (which includes particular skills and knowledge) the candidate can bring to the business.  I also take the relationship seriously.  In a world of potential litigious nightmares, hiring is no laughing matter.

More than anything, I am mindful to avoid the “bad hire.”  Here’s how:

1.Don’t hire someone because you feel sorry for them.  This seems a no-brainer, but we are so very human—I’m delighted to say.  And humans see another human down and generally want to help them up.  So stop thinking of it as giving someone a job.  That’s backward thinking and will get you in trouble (even if the company is your own).  Think of it as hiring someone who will be of value to the company.   

2.Hire for the long haul.  Even though we know the average length of time a good employee will spend with any given company is between 3-5 years, hire for longer than that.  Take it that seriously.  I’ve heard leaders saying, “I might as well give them a chance.  I can always let them go if they don’t work out.”  It’s not all that easy to let someone go.  And it’s expensive!  Think of it this way—what if you agreed to marry your husband or wife with the idea you could always divorce them if it didn’t work out?  Ah.  Maybe that’s why we have such a high divorce rate…

3.Don’t limit yourself to “selfies.”  What I mean is that some people keep trying to hire themselves.  They want clones.  They say, “You’re bad at math!  How funny, so am I!”  Then they have an entire staff stumped by math.  So who’s going to do the math?  They may all be really good with customers, but there’s a skill gap.  You want to hire for the gaps.  That’s how work gets done. 

4.Don’t forget the get-along factor.  So, no, you don’t want to hire people who are all alike.  But you do want to hire folks who will get along with your team.  You have to ask yourself before you make that offer:  Will this person get along with everyone else?  And then answer the question.

5.Don’t ignore the pink flags.  We understand the red flags.  Bad hires, however, are sometimes the result of ignoring the pink ones.  You know that color white T-shirts turn when you wash them with something red?  It’s sometimes easy to ignore.  So it’s a little pink, I’ll say, so what.  I can still wear it.  With potential hires, you’ll need to be on high alert for even slightly pink flags.  Here’s a just a sample:

  • Anything negative said about anything.  This could be about a prior employer or even their breakfast.
  • Someone who only tells you what you want to hear.  Beware of the person who will try to please you at the expense of the truth. 
  • Someone who’s rude or dismissive to the receptionist or other line-level employees but acts completely different to the folks conducting the interview.  Need I say more?
  • Now, you might think I’m nitpicking, but I am never impressed by someone who doesn’t push in his or her chair.  Or by someone who leaves an empty water bottle on the table.  Or, even worse (for me), tosses the water bottle into the regular trash instead of the recycle bin.  

6.  Don’t EVER say you’re hiring “bodies.”  This is absurd, actually.  And I still hear managers saying it in certain industries.  I want to say something snarky back like, “Well, you better get down to the coroner’s office before they run out.” Okay, I’ll admit having said this exact thing.  You must always avoid hiring in a hurry.  Plan ahead.  Be deliberate.  My grandmother’s favorite saying, “Haste makes waste,” really comes into play here.

Everyone knows that it’s hard to run a business when a bad hire’s running amok.  But the thing you want to remember is that bad hires not only cause trouble, they cost your business real money.



Stop Rewarding Your Best Employees with Leadership Positions

Yet again, I’m faced with someone who was “rewarded” for his hard work by being promoted into a leadership position.  I’ll be specific and say that this is a talented employee who superseded all expectations.  He was doing a fantastic job.  So the best course would have been a merit increase, extra training, and recognition.  But, no, rather than take this route, the employee was plugged into a leadership position. 

When will we learn? Sure, we’ve all heard of the Peter Principal, but this is different.  We HR people know that it takes much more than skill and knowledge to be a business leader.  But when you base your promotions exclusively on these two categories, the results are always sad.   This employee called me this weekend talking about firing his entire staff for “disrespecting him.”  Actually, he talked a lot about not getting any respect.  I let him know we’d meet on Monday. I didn’t let him know that I’d be telling him the truth—which is that he is entirely unprepared to lead.  He doesn’t know that his claim of being disrespected is a clear indicator of someone who doesn’t understand yet how to earn “respect,” a word—incidentally—I’ve learned to loathe. 

Everyone involved in his promotion was well intentioned.  Everyone thought they were doing the best thing in giving this employee an opportunity to succeed. Yet, we shouldn’t be hiring for leaders based on the “chance” they might do a good job.  We need solid and tested folks leading our employees.  We need to know—to the best of our abilities—that they will succeed.  Treating promotions like rewards is one of the worst things we can do. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t groom, train, and mentor our superstars.  We should!  But without GTM, you are dooming your employees. The one I’ll be speaking to on Monday is frustrated. He now sees the company as negative.  Moreover, without being able to manage his staff, productivity is suffering. I will try my best to map a way forward with him, but I’m not guaranteeing success.    

For now, I hope leaders will stop and think before rewarding employees with promotions.  It’s bad business, and it’s utterly unfair to the promoted employee.

Aviary Photo_130358501405177923

I Surrender: Cell Phone Policies & Millennials

I’m not an old fashioned gal.  I love my smart phone almost as much as my 25-year-old son does.  Almost.   

The difference is that my son showed me how to use this nifty device.  He got me hooked.  Lured me onto various social media sites.  Taught me how to text with acrobatic thumbs.  Just a couple years ago, I had Luddite tendencies and could take or leave all the new gadgets out there.  Today, my Galaxy is never out of reach.  And, sure, I can still imagine life without it, but I don’t like to. 

For millennials, however, who grew up with the Internet and every device out there, their phones are more like a limb.  And with all the cell phone policies I’ve tried to enforce over the years, I’m now feeling like I’m asking these young employees to work without their arms or legs.  It sometimes feels like I’m asking them to leave their legs in their lockers.  Even the best amongst them are clearly unnerved.

So with cell phone policies, I find myself issuing disciplinary actions to some of my best employees.     Here’s the deal: I can’t have them texting someone while a customer waits for service.  I can’t have my employees missing deadlines because they were taking “selfies” or “ussies.”  But let’s examine what the real problems are.  It’s poor customer service.  It’s missing deadlines.  So perhaps, the discipline should address the real problems, eh? 

Cell phones are ubiquitous to millennials, and it’s not a battle anyone can win.  Statistics show that young adults send on average three texts per hour every single day.   Teens (who will be joining the workforce soon) send twice as much.  And frankly, I’m tired of fighting. I have better things to do.    

But what I’m suggesting isn’t a smart phone free-for-all.  I’m suggesting smart usage for smart phones while at work.  Rather than a blanket policy banning them, I’m suggesting a policy for appropriate usage. Detail when and where it’s okay.  And then detail what you can’t tolerate, depending on your industry.  Clarify why you can’t tolerate it and then discipline accordingly.  Instead of the standard write-up for cell phone usage, discipline for customer service disrupted or poor performance. 

Too, I firmly believe you might find some handy uses for our millennials’ obsession.  At a large department store the other day, I noticed workers talking to each other via bulky radios.  I know these radios are pricy—and there’s never enough of them to go around.  Why not contribute to our millennials’ monthly payments and use their devices instead?  Why the hell not?  What are we waiting for?  If you sit down and outline the many fantastic uses of smart phones, you’ll probably find some genius ways to cut costs and increase revenue. 

Yes, I surrender.  I do.  But it’s not a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”  It’s a case of optimizing a tidal wave trend and making it work for your business.