Dear Walter Hale

The holiday season is upon us – a time to reflect on those niggling workplace predicaments. But help is at hand in the form of agony uncle Walter Hale, who here offers solutions to some of your personnel problems

Line managers, eh? From the way some of them behave you wouldn’t be surprised to discover they had the number of the Beast tattooed on the back of their heads. There was the line manager at a law firm who tried to invoice the mother of an employee who had committed suicide for costs of £13,000 involved in settling up office work, including a bill for £1,500 which was alleged to be the expense of going to the employee’s home to find out why he hadn’t turned up for work.

Then there was the manager of a doughnut shop in California (where else?) who tried to pretend that an employee who had been wounded in a hold-up was actually a customer because he knew the company was not insured to compensate injured workers. So determined was the manager to succeed in this deception that he dragged the wounded worker off the company premises and out on to the street.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t made clear whether the manager carried this act of despicable duplicity as far as to tell the police, “Never saw him before in my life, officer! He just walked in here off the street and tried to buy a doughnut.”

Finally in this unholy trio, comes the manager of another Californian company who told staff they’d be docked a day’s pay if they showed up for work with a visible love bite. This controversial policy received surprising support from an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, who said, “Someone with sex on their mind will look at a hickey as if they’re watching Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.” Quite.

Most line managers don’t reach those ludicrous heights, but they have been known to go around saying things like “HR is for wimps”, and claim that 80 per cent of what the personnel department does is form-filling. You know the kind of managers – the kind who disguise the fact that they have all the interpersonal skills of Josef Stalin by insisting that they are merely being “firm but fair”.

The challenge for human resources and personnel managers is to shape the managerial culture of their company so that line managers don’t behave in ways that will have the chairperson of an industrial tribunal trembling with rage.

To do this, successfully, HR has to deal in the coin of the corporate realm – making a difference to the bottom line. This can only be done with the support of main board directors, not just political support, but the will to put their clout behind such initiatives as, for example, charging £20,000 to a line manager’s operating budget every time one of their staff leaves.

The cliché that personnel management comprises all those things that do not deal with the work of people and are not management is still too widely believed for the profession’s comfort. And when HR is too far down the corporate food chain, you get these kind of horrors.

All these problems are real but sometimes the names have been changed to protect the innocent HR people. The solutions, if that’s what they are, are thrown in free for good measure.

How to win friends and influence people

Q My managing director is destroying employee morale. Last week he called a team of staff working on a new project into his office just to tell them that their work was terrible and they would have to start again. How can I stop him doing this?

A Hire a consultant. One of the reasons companies pay consultants a lot of money is because they can tell your boss things that no one in the company can. And, because your boss has paid these consultants a lot of money, he is more likely to heed their advice. Sounds like your boss could do with some 360-degree feedback. I had to go in to a company in the Midlands once and tell the chief executive, “If you were in the company car park, 73 per cent of your staff would accelerate to try to knock you over”.

Harsh thing to have to say but the fact that it was presented supported by data somehow depersonalised it. As a rule of thumb, US surveys have found that 15 per cent of CEOs turn out, after such tests, to be what are termed “legends in their own minds”.

Look on the bright side of total IIP failure

Q My company has failed all 10 categories in a recent Investors In People appraisal. What do you think I should do?

A You should be proud. Quite a lot of companies fail a lot of Investors In People categories, but most manage to scrape a pass mark in one or two. Very few employers have the courage to fail all 10.

You must be able to turn this to your advantage. Even the thickest skinned dinosaur on your main board can no longer ignore the need to act. So be positive, seize the momentum and build support for the kind of far-reaching cultural changes you’ve never had the clout to propose before.

Alternatively, if you’ve managed HR or personnel at this company for more than five years, you should probably resign. Either you’re no good at your job or your peers and superiors have grown used to ignoring you, which means you can’t do a good job.

Manager washed his dirty linen in public

Q A line manager has left confidential appraisals of all his employees on the laser printer in the open plan office. Is there anything I can do to limit the damage?

A You’re talking two types of damage – legal and organisational. Presumably you wouldn’t be worried if your manager had given all his employees glowing reports. So these appraisals must contain some negative assessments which the staff concerned would not necessarily agree with.

The first thing to do is assess whether any employee could sue for libel, so hand over everything that has been inadvertently circulated to the company lawyer and brace yourself. Remember, one of the definitions of libel is if someone is defamed “in front of their peers” outside the House of Lords, a person’s workmates are as serious a group of peers as you’re going to get.

Second, you obviously need to talk to the manager concerned and perhaps remind all managers how such confidential information should be handled.

You should never underestimate what your employees can find out and how quickly they spread that knowledge. When a director at a media company I know of left information from which her annual salary could be calculated on the fax machine outside her office, the exact amount was known at three different physical locations within five minutes.

Failing colleague makes it difficult for us all

Q One of my line manager’s failure to perform has become obvious to everyone (subordinates, peers, our own department) except his boss. The present situation isn’t helping the company or the employee concerned. Any ideas?

A The advice depends on whether the employee is largely at fault for their failure to perform. For instance, most managers would describe themselves as good communicators, yet few employees agree.

The first question has to be, does this person know what they’re supposed to be doing? If the answer is yes, the next question is, do they know in what areas they are failing to perform? Managers develop ways of skirting around problems and bypassing difficult employees rather than having the nerve to actually have a difficult conversation. The least this employee deserves is to have a discussion about their performance and a chance to turn it around over an agreed, specific, period.

Don’t encourage your managers to fire people with enthusiasm if only for their own health – studies show that managers who regularly fire employees run a higher risk of heart disease. Your manager’s manager needs a quiet word in their shell-like, in private, so they don’t feel threatened by the idea that they haven’t noticed there’s a problem.

One last thought, for your own personal safety, make sure this under-performer doesn’t have a sponsor high up in the company who will reject any criticism of their protégé. You don’t want to go down in company history as the HR manager who tried to get the chairman’s idiot nephew fired.

My colleagues just don’t take me seriously

Q I have just formed an HR department at a young media company but am having trouble persuading the founders to take myself or my business seriously. Any tips?

A The clichéd answer would be to tell you to align your department to the company’s business objectives, and sound as that principle is, it’s probably too general to be of much use. The best approach is to think through the problems your company has and suggest how you can make a difference.

For instance, as a media company, you may have a problem with staff turnover. The cost of staff turnover varies from industry. In the hotel business, for example, a US consultant estimated that staff turnover cost a typical hotel £500,000 a year whereas, in a labour market as tight as software, the cost or each employee who has to be replaced may be in excess of £150,000. The US comedian Alan Sherman even wrote a song about this that included the immortal lines, “And my best one is gone I know/And if he doesn’t come back to me/I’ll have to close the factory”.

Telling your board that good HR practice could save them thousands of pounds a year is a good way of grabbing their attention. Studies of successful HR companies in the US show that they typically spend 64 per cent of their time developing employees and helping managers and only 36 per cent on administration and industrial relations. For poorer performers the split is the other way around. Be prepared to fight your corner.

Young companies often have very hands-on managers/directors and while their informal, intense style may work well in a start-up environment, it will be counterproductive as the company grows. Without proper structure, the company’s middle management may end up spending hours on fruitless political infighting.

Dinner plan leaves a bad taste in the mouth

Q We have all been working long hours and one of my line managers wants to have a motivational, morale-raising, dinner but insists on having it when one of his key employees can’t come. What should I do?

A Morale-raising dinners are every stressed, overworked, line manager’s idea of a panacea for whatever is ailing their team. The glow from a free dinner isn’t going to compensate for a ridiculous workload or employees’ feeling that they’re not being consulted.

An after-work curry isn’t even that original. Robert Shillman, chairman of Boston software company Cognex, gives staff who have racked up 15 years’ service a trip to one of the seven wonders of the world and throws moneybags containing $10,000 at concerts given by a rock band made up of employees. He doesn’t do the flashy stuff, if Cognex meets its profit targets in a year, every employee gets a bonus.

Why not tell your manager to forget the curry? Better simply to tell staff to take their significant others out on expenses. After all, the partners have suffered from the stress too.

Studies of employees’ attitudes show that one of the big drags on morale is when they feel their work is being ignored. In a survey of 29,000 US employees, 67 per cent felt that doing their job well did not lead to recognition and respect.

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