Monthly Archives: August 2014

Seven Ways to Prevent Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace

These days, outright aggression in the workplace is rare.  However, passive-aggressive behavior—in the form of scapegoating, blaming and denying—can be common.  We HR folks know this to be true.  We also know passive-aggressive behavior slows productivity and is responsible for many workplace ills.  So how do we prevent it?

  1. Insist upon open lines of positive communication. Simply put, everyone needs to be heard without the fear of being terminated.  Have several official ways to communicate as well as an open-door policy.  Unexpressed concerns will eventually express themselves in negative ways.
  2. Acknowledge perception.  People will feel things based on perception alone, so we must address these feelings rather than telling someone “you shouldn’t feel that way.”  People are going to feel the way they feel based on perception, not necessarily the truth.
  3. Train people to communicate effectively.  Train them to actively listen to each other and to have conversations that maintain the respect and dignity of the other person.  People tend to de-prioritize their relationships with co-workers in favor of running reports and finishing projects when, in fact, solid relationships are the key to innovation and productivity.
  4. Create a compassionate culture by assuming goodwill.  If a mistake is made, assume it was unintentional.  Don’t assume others are purposefully making your work life hard.  Discuss any problems with an assumption of goodwill, and you will go a long way in avoiding passive- aggressive behavior.
  5. If someone does communicate something to you that makes you angry or irritated, don’t show it.  Stay calm and professional.  If you react in a negative way, the employee will most likely never communicate with you again.   And this inability to communicate will almost certainly lead to passive-aggressive behavior
  6. Encourage healthy assertive behavior.  Never shoot down someone’s ideas without explaining why something might not work or be difficult to implement.
  7. Be consistent in your behavior.  Everyone should always know where you stand.  Be the same person with co-workers, leaders and subordinates.  Having different personalities generates trust issues and causes others to clam up.

passive aggression


Are We Using “Bad Fit” as an Excuse?

I think we might be tossing the phrase “bad fit” around too much.  Lately, I’ve been hearing it used as crutch for all sorts of issue.  And it’s time we step back and question whether or not we’re using “bad fit” as an excuse to avoid managing performance.

Let’s first explore what a “bad fit” actually is.  Let’s say you have an organization that dresses casually, allows for free thinking and creativity and is rather loose with policy enforcement.  And then the organization hires a black and white thinker accustomed to the structure of hierarchy and rules.  Or, let’s say the opposite is true.  Both scenarios are clear examples of bad organizational fits.

It’s true, however, that you can’t always tell when hiring.  After all, job candidates don’t come with tags, and one size doesn’t fit all.  Also, folks applying for jobs want jobs.  Whether they fit in or not is the last thing on most candidates’ minds.  Rarely, unless they are being hired at the executive level, do they take the time to ask questions about the organization’s workplace culture or ponder whether they would be good fits.  And who can blame them? Job seekers are typically optimists who think they can conform to any situation as long as they get a paycheck.


Employers are also at fault here.  Rather than understanding their workplace culture and hiring with this in mind, they focus solely on skills and expertise.  While I certainly value the latter, a good recruiter can find someone with the needed expertise who also fits into the organization.

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to make sure new hires are welcomed and trained.  What sometimes happens, however, is that existing employees—especially those who have known and worked together for years—exclude the new employee.  They might be threatened by the employee’s new and needed ideas or skills.  They already have their established relationships with co-workers and don’t fancy making new ones.  It’s really the “new kid in the class” syndrome.  The new kid disrupts the comfort of a familiar dynamic.  This is true at work, too.  But at work, you should want the familiar dynamic disrupted.  Familiarity can breed complacency, an innovation killer.  Fresh ideas and new perspectives should be welcomed and encouraged.  Therefore, current staff needs to be prepared for the new employee.   Welcoming, encouraging and training the new employee should be a priority.  Too often, however, the employee shows up, and the current employees fake a welcome then sneer behind the new hire’s back.  The worst situation is when the assigned trainer moans and groans with resentment.  So this isn’t a bad fit; this is a bad start. 

Also, you should know that if someone isn’t up to speed, it’s generally not because they don’t understand the workplace culture; it’s that they don’t understand what is expected of them.  The manager shouldn’t hesitate giving feedback to new employees because new employees deserve and expect guidance in their first year of work.  Sure, some have the skillset to hit the ground running, but they’ll need to understand what that ground is.

If someone who has been trained, welcomed, given the correct feedback and told expectations continues to have difficulty performing, then you probably do have a bad fit.  However, if you haven’t worked to provide the above, labeling someone a bad fit isn’t helpful or merited. 





The Truth About Progressive Discipline

Progressive Discipline is a common cornerstone of performance management.  Certainly, many HR departments and business managers still cling to its validity and so-called ability to boost performance as well as grant the employee due process.  Make a mistake, and you’ll be issued a written verbal (note the juxtaposition).  Make another, you get a written.  Finally, you’ll be handed your final written and possible suspension without pay.  The next violation, the employee’s headed out the door.  It’s fair, right? Employees get fair warning before they are terminated, and the employer is protected against any legal ramifications, including unemployment costs and potential wrongful terminations.

The truth is this: Progressive Discipline generally does nothing to motivate employees, and its sole reason for existence is to protect the employer—who, frankly, also suffers under the regime of this performance tool.

First off, modern workplaces need to begin shedding any practices that resemble militaristic or police systems.  The modern world is demanding self-motivated value-driven workers who no longer plod through the nine to five world.  These modern workers are simply demoralized by such punitive systems of performance management.  Even the word “discipline” gives most of us the heebie jeebies.

As industry leaders, we want to flip this decrepit turtle on its back.  We want to encourage performance and improvement rather than steer the employee’s outlook toward negative consequences or punishment.  Here’s an example:

  • Under Progressive Discipline:  “Be late again, and you will be suspended for three days.”
  • Under New System:  “It seems you have some issues getting to work on time.  What’s going on?  Why are you late?  We need you to come on time, so what can we do to improve this situation?”

The first is a threat; the second is a conversation between adults, which is more likely to have results.

In my experience, the weakest managers use progressive discipline to avoid having tough conversations.  To them, it’s cut and dry.  You do this, you get that.  But that’s a cowardly and inefficient way to manage performance and increase productivity.

So what’s the alternative?  What should you do in place of Progressive Discipline?  The first and most important thing is to hire right.  Recruiting the best people is your first line of defense.  Okay, so say you’re taking recruitment seriously now, but in the past it was rather slap dash.  So you’re stuck with a handful of poor performing and disengaged workers.  What do you do with them? Perhaps your normal practice is to “document them right out the door.”  You “exit them out.”  Let’s rethink this, shall we?

At the very least, you should use “Corrective Action” in place of “Progressive Discipline.”  And this system should begin with a series of undocumented serious conversations about improving the employee’s performance. The focus of these conversations should be the following:

  • The behavior or action in question
  • What is causing it (the employee is asked)
  • What is expected
  • Plan to meet expectations (should include assigned training)

These conversations should be detailed in an email to the HR Director, who will only make notations in the employee’s file if the behavior or actions continue to be a problem.

Only after these conversations fail does the manager or supervisor initiate documentation in the form of corrective actions.  Indeed, these CAs should include recommended trainings and concrete plans for improvement.  And rather than increasing the punishment for CAs, consider implementing a policy that states three CAs (for any reason) in one year will result in automatic termination.  This is different than the traditional Progressive Discipline because an employee generally has to receive the PD for the same type of infraction (attendance, performance, attitude, etc.) to be separated.

When you stick to the old fashioned tenets of a Progressive Discipline policy, you are essentially treating your employees like children or criminals.  This is an excellent way to squash morale and a good way to create a staff whose chief characteristics include being disengaged and disgruntled.  It’s extremely uncomfortable, too, for both parties—the issuer and employee.  It sets both up for an antagonistic relationship in the future.

In short, if the goal is high performance and a strengthened esprit de corps, it’s time to rethink your Progressive Discipline policy.

progressive discipline


Why You Didn’t Get the Job—It’s Not You, It’s Me


I recently interviewed candidates for a key position, and I was extremely grateful to meet five superbly qualified people.  Since, however, I only had one position, four received a thank you but no thanks even though they are fully capable of doing the job and are experts in their field.

Only those blinded by ego and overconfidence treat rejection like a speck of dust easily flicked away.  Most thoughtful people can’t help but question what they might have done differently in the interview process, or they might even question their qualifications.  I’m here to tell you that it’s not you.  It’s me. 

When I say me, I’m representing the organization.  As most good recruitment managers will tell you, it’s not as simple as finding a well-qualified intelligent candidate.  We’re actually looking for something unwritten, something you couldn’t possibly discover though you might have researched the company up and down and backwards and forwards.  I’m not just speaking about organizational fit either; rather, it’s about specific and current organizational events and goals.  It’s sometimes about small lunch meetings where something small but crucial was mentioned, usually prefaced by we need someone who…

If you’re an outside candidate, it would be nearly impossible for you to know exactly what it is the company needs at the moment.  Yet, almost by miracle, at least one candidate will verbalize how she or he can meet these needs, and this is without even knowing what these needs are.  It just happens to be a particular skill she or he has.

So don’t beat yourself up, please—and don’t question yourself or abilities.  In fact, if you weren’t chosen, it’s really means you wouldn’t have been happy or satisfied in the position.  Go ahead and  play out the scenario in your head. Compare it to relationships you might have had—relationships you think should work because the other person has all the qualities you’re looking for in a mate—but you instinctually know something crucial is missing.  And even though you love the person for the person he is, you know he isn’t what you need or want.   And you know in the long run, you’d be unhappy.

It’s not you.  It’s me.  And I’m not just saying this.


How and Why to Write Recommendation Letters that Get Results

Anyone in a leadership position needs to master the art of writing a superb letter of recognition.  After all, we are in positions to develop others.  I’ve seen over and over that the best and most successful leaders are committed to the success of those they’ve mentored, taught or worked with side-by-side.

I’ll first say, however, that you do not have to write a recommendation letter for everyone who asks.  If you cannot recommend them, let them know you are unavailable to write a letter.  Though I enjoy writing fiction, myself, I wouldn’t try to pass my fiction as truth, and a letter of recommendation is supposed to be true.  Moreover, if I did agree to writing letters of recommendation for people I wouldn’t recommend, it would destroy my reputation.   It also might be that I simply don’t know this person well enough or observed them long enough to write a thoughtful letter.  In this case, be honest with the person and let them know these reasons.  Tell them it wouldn’t benefit them to have a letter from you.

rec letter

If you do decide to recommend someone, take it to heart, and follow the steps below to get the best results:

Ask the “asker” for more information.  Find out what they need the letter for—that way you can focus the letter on the desired result.  It might be for a certain position, school or even a scholarship.  Also, have them write a brief bio for you, so you can include salient details about their experience.  Also, make note of how long you have known the person and in what capacity.

First paragraph. State what you are doing, who you are writing the letter for, who you are (credibility) and how long you’ve known the person and in what capacity.  Make one general statement on why the person should achieve the desired goal.

Dear Selection Committee:

I am writing to highly recommend FIRST AND LAST NAME for the position of executive chef at BUSINESS.  As YOUR POSITION for YOUR COMPANY, I have had the opportunity to supervise FIRST NAME for the past five years.  In that time, FIRST NAME has increased profits and broadened our customer base, while also spearheading a profitable expansion into catering.

Second and third paragraphs.  At this point, you want to specifically describe the person’s qualifications.  Ask yourself, what value did this person add to your company via the following categories? 

  1. Projects
  2. Data & results
  3. Education, certifications, training & awards
  4. Knowledge
  5. Accomplishments
  6. Skills set into action
  7. Comparisons

Example:  FIRST NAME developed our chef intern program, whose participants were disenfranchised youth.  Through successful fundraising and developing relationships with members of the community, he was able to instruct youth toward becoming the chefs of tomorrow.

Fourth paragraph.  Describe—briefly—personal qualities you have witnessed firsthand and end on an affirmative offer that you can be contacted for additional information.

Example:  Furthermore, FIRST NAME’s interpersonal skills, displayed through his staff’s loyalty and high performance, are rare qualities sought after by most employers.  FIRST NAME’s investment in his staff’s development and growth is clear, and he has the ability to teach and guide people through modeling behavior and identifying skill sets.  FIRST NAME‘s knowledge of BLANK and skills (be specific) will undoubtedly be an asset to your business.  If you need additional information about FIRST NAME, please do not hesitate to contact me.


If you use the guidelines above, you’ll have a solid first draft, which you can then shape into your letter.  I caution you to avoid too much hyperbole.  Sure, I added the word “undoubtedly,” but this was well placed and left until the end.  If you overuse adjectives or adverbs without proper factual support, they lose their effect.  Plus, the letter becomes vague and chalky, which is another thing you want to avoid.

Also, you don’t want the letter to be too short or too gassy.   Readers of these letters aren’t interested in two paragraphs that sound more like greeting cards, nor do they have time to read through a seven-page declaration of your love.  In addition, be wary to avoid areas in which the person has improved, focusing instead on the “now.”  No one needs to know that person used to really stink but has since become one of your best employees.  Focus, instead, on who the person is today.

Remember that writing letters of recommendation is necessary but not simply as a gesture of goodwill; mastering the art of recommendation letters helps build your reputation as a credible business leader who supports people along the way.