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Friday, April 04, 2008

Find Out What is Going On--But it Better Darn Well be Positive

Greetings Evil HR Lady,

I've recently experienced an HR issue--that maybe all HR folks experience at some point-- that I would really like your opinion on. Since I've only been with Company X only 4 months, I've spent much of that time creating forms, processes, working with managers, and trying to learn everything I can about existing processes and procedures.

A few weeks ago I started to make more frequent rounds with employees. Within days, during casual "How's it going" conversations with employees, many of them confided how disappointed they felt about the management [the owners]. The owners are two siblings. Every employee conversation was worse than the one before it. Many are looking for other jobs. Other stories were, well, scary.

I should add that Company X has had a lot of change. Shortly after I joined them they decided to let go of certain managers for performance reasons (and well, I think they weren't well liked). Within a month, the fallout appeared and a key manager resigned.

During a conversation with the owners they asked how things were going and I told them I wanted to do a survey. They looked hesitant. I told them morale was very low (based on the fact that 100% of my conversations were negative). They became ANGRY. They demanded to know who said what, when, and from which department. I was shocked. What do I say? "Everyone." After stumbling back on my tongue I told them that this may be a result of the employees not having information, that folks fill in where they don't get information--often not accurate but it's something. The short story: They pulled in senior management to talk about "this low morale", then one of the owners pulled in several employees one by one and, so the story goes, to tell them "They can ask questions at any time...". I wasn't told about the meetings.

I felt devastated. I couldn't believe what had just happened. I thought I was on the right course by letting them know that morale was low and needed some attention. The next day employees still said hello and were cordial but I'm sure they won't be coming to talk to me anytime soon--or ever! Was this just a bad decision on my part to include the "management"? I feel they overreacted and alienated me and their staff.

Or is this just another day of being HR?

I thank you very much for your time and expertise.

Well, see, here's the problem. People say they want feedback, but dang it, what they want is positive feedback. I think this stems back to the self-esteem movement where some idiotic (Did I just write that? How rude.) child development people decided that feeling good about ourselves was better than actually being good at anything. Bah! It's bad enough in second grade, and now it's moved to the workplace.

You work for a family owned company. Not saying that all family owned companies are poorly run, it's just that people who are good at ideas and starting businesses aren't necessarily good at running them. Their children are often even worse. So, you probably have two brothers who are good at the "business," but not good at managing it.

What they did--by interrogating employees--was not a good idea. But, it's done. Did you make a mistake in giving them negative feedback? Well, obviously because they didn't react well. Did you make a mistake in saying you wanted to do a survey? No. Those can be very valuable.

In my never to be humble opinion, what you should have done is said, "You know, now that I've been here a few months and I've gotten x,y, and z going, I think it would be a good idea to do an employee attitude survey."

They still would have freaked out. "We know what employees think!" they would protest. "I'm sure you do," you could say brightly, "but being new here, I don't know. My job, as I understand it, is to make the business as successful as possible by understanding the best way to motivate employees. Because all companies have different cultures and employees, I want to be able to motivate within the framework you've set up."

Then you could run back to your office and vomit after spewing forth such rainbows. It may be an approach that fails, but it might succeed.

But, that is neither here nor there. You've got a long road ahead of you. Employees now know that you support "them" and not "us." Therefore, you are now part of the true management team in their eyes. Congratulations! Of course, the managers now think you are supporting the employees and not them, so basically, you're all alone in your HR world.

You've already gained a good deal of insight into how employees feel and how managers feel. Take that knowledge and work on developing solutions. The tricky part is that management can't know why you are truly suggesting the solutions you are suggesting. Talk about retention, productivity, profits. Yes, I just said profits. One thing that even poor managers understand is the need for good profits. If the changes you want to make will help increase the bottom line, then you are going to have a better chance at success. If you present your ideas as "this will make everyone happier!" you'll get shot down.

What a challenge you have in front of you. But, I'm sure you can do it. After all, us HR types can do just about anything.


HR Godess said...

I work for a family owned business now and for another for 7 years prior. In both instances, the owners have never acted or said anything close to what is described. I would not be able to work for people who don't treat me with respect, let alone be expected to better the company when the problem starts at the top.

I currently work for a company that has a morale problem. It's better today than the day I started but it was/is due to management, moreso than employees. I've spent countless hours teaching the managers how to behave. Lucky for me, it's working. Turnover has been reduced and employee morale is improving. We still have a long way to go but it's definitely better.

It's a tough spot to be in so good luck and I hope you make some headway with the owners. If they won't back you, you might want to consider finding another position somewhere else.

Vitriolic Virchow said...

Leave. Leave, NOW. You've "betrayed" the family, and you've shot yourself in the foot with workers. Add to this the chances that the bosses will actually DO anything the survey finds needs doing--your effectiveness is now nil.

The Engineer said...

A friend of mine spent several years working for an "entrepreneur" who said the right things but meant the wrong ones. The owner would (somewhat accidentally) hire competent people for specific tasks but never actually released control enough to allow them to do the jobs. Add to this an amazing need for adoration and regular acknowledgment that all you had in life was due to their benevolence in paying your salary and the good staff didn't last long. Those willing to play the game last until they finally do the wrong thing (you'll never see it coming).

They paid well so my friend stayed on until they fired him. It took the owner a long time to work up the courage to do so. They gave him a solid six figure amount as he left and he got some great experience so he wasn't disappointed. However, he never did stop trying to get the owner to actually "do" the right thing.

You now know a lot more about your employers. You have to decide if there is any upside to you in this experience. Good luck.

Benjamin said...

It doesn't sound good. If the leadership team build a culture where people only tell them what they want to hear, how are they going to get the information to run the business effectively? What do they do when a customer is unhappy?!?

Ibn Tumart said...

I think this stems back to the self-esteem movement where some idiotic (Did I just write that? How rude.) child development people decided that feeling good about ourselves was better than actually being good at anything.

I love this comment more than I would have thought humanly possible. I absolutely detest that attitude as well, whether it's coming from parents or encountered in the workplace.

Rowan Manahan said...

Great advice Evil.

This is lamentably familiar and you are so on the money with your insight that great entrepreneur = great manager not always (ever?) being true.

The other dimension to situations of this nature that I have observed time and again is that owner-managers frequently have a chip on shoulder problem with the competent, qualified, trained, experienced professionals that they hire. If an O-M hires, say a marketing person from a large Co, who then comes in an puts best practice approaches in place, probably the worst thing that marketing person can do is SUCCEED. The simmering resentment on the part of the O-M is truly staggering to behold!

Sounds like your questioner has run smack up against this oh so tiring cliche of an O-M.

What's the old quote? "If you ask a question you don't really want an answer to, don't get mad when I give you an answer you don't want to hear."

And the more successful you are in your function, the more this bozo is going to resent you ...

Wally Bock said...

Great response, Evil. We can dissect what boors the owner-managers are, but the crisis our young (I hope he or she is young) friend is suffering is of his or her own making. I suggest that this should function as a powerful learning experience that the writer can use somewhere else.

Just another HR lady... said...

Eek...sorry, but you took a real political mis-step there with both your mgmt and employees. This is a really harsh learning experience for someone in HR to go through, you're going to have to work really hard to try and build that trust back with both mgmt and employees.

Just a hint also, I'm guessing that you are new in your career (?), as HR you should always ask the employee if it's ok that you reveal that they were the person that brought forward the information. If they say "no", you have to find a more creative way to resolve the problem than just bringing forward the fact that you had a complaint. In fact, sometimes it is even better to start investigating a situation while playing dumb, as if you have no idea what's been happening. :-) You'd be surprised at how often you can resolve something without ever having to reveal that someone came to you to tell you about the issue.

Dan McCarthy said...

Evil -
As always, so good in so many ways. Yes, people do hate feedback, unless it’s positive. That’s why managers hate giving it.
And at the risk of stereotyping, I have to agree with all of the comments about whacky owner managers. In college, I worked for too many eccentric, knife wielding owner chefs (tip – never send your food back… they really don’t like feedback).

HR Wench said...

Wally hit the nail on the head.

Some questions I suggest the HR pro who wrote in to ponder:

1. What were you hired to do?
2. Are you doing it and doing it well? Is it satisfying?
3. What is senior management's view of HR and what are you doing to support or not support that view? Is theirs the same as your view?
4. Can you demonstrate a clear business case for HR activities and deliver business results?
5. Does or would senior management support the growth of the HR function and your growth as a professional?

I'm guessing you are a person with the best of intentions that just discovered what the road to hell is paved with.

Get thee to a seminar by Margaret Morford.

Indiana Catbert said...

This seems like a classic example of calling the baby ugly in front of its mother. You shouldn't be surprised by the result.

It would have been better to gather some outcomes from the poor morale. Is turnover high? What does the management team want in terms of turnover? Do they understand the related costs of such turnover. Is productivity poor? What should the production standard be? Do we have the right people in the right jobs? Etc., etc.

I think if you had gathered some metrics first, and then asked some of the above questions, then you could have led the mgmt team to being part of the solution rather than putting them on the defensive.

I think your first few months on the job might have been better spent on learning/worrying more about the drivers of the business than whether forms or processes were efficient. Building your credibility when starting out is critical to influencing the right outcomes.

Indiana Catbert said...

and, one more observation. Don't ever propose a survey if the management is unwilling to meaningfully respond to the findings. If you think morale is poor now, just wait till a survey raises expectations that go unfulfilled.

Jeremiah said...

I'd get the hell out of dodge. If the owners treat everyone else like crap then it is only a matter of time before they do the same to you.