HR professionals working in American corporations and small businesses wear many hats. A simple way to see the role is to align talent strategies to support business goals. A broader strategic assignment however, is to promote a healthy supportive atmosphere (culture) for employees. In the course of HR work, professionals work with individuals in transition and are witness to various human reactions to change. With change comes distress. Along the way, HR professionals have the opportunity to prevent distress and support employees through difficult times or, ignore it with poor planning and indifference.
Two sources of employee distress at work
Employee distress at work can come from employer-initiated changes as a necessary part of doing business today: changes in organizational structure, supervisor, work processes and procedures, negative performance evaluations and layoffs. Covid-19 is an extreme current example. On the other hand, various personal issues may increasingly affect employee thoughts while at work: divorce, spouse or partner out of work; illness; child behavior problems at school, drug abuse; alcoholism, financial difficulties or death a loved one. The list goes on.
HR’s role in managing human behavior
HR helps employees through change in four distinct ways
- Advocating for employee needs and encouraging leaders to attend to these needs
- Thoughtful implementation of company-initiated change
- Compassionate inteventions for employee personal crises
- Preventing prolonged unethical or abusive practices
1. Advocating for employee needs
HR pros should be well aware of the various employee groups from the top to the lower level employees and their associated needs. In addition, employees regardless of level, experience various challenges associated with life stages. The need to attract potential employees requires that company policies and benefits align with employee needs. Finally, employers and by definition, HR pros have a part to play in simply making sure the workplace is humane and civil. A strong and healthy culture is expected in today’s workplace. You can make money in the short run with a poor atmosphere but it is typically unsustainable as word gets out and problems arise. An over-emphasis on efficiency in the meat packing industry for example, was a problem when intersecting with a potentially deadly virus (headlines in March and April) but was it really a reasonable or humane working condition in the first place, to have workers stacked next to each other, standing for an 8 hour shift with few breaks and without PPE?
2. Thoughtful implementation of company-initiated change
In a free employment market economy with today’s fast paced technological changes, companies have to change and morph along with it. Human beings need time to adjust to change. When the company initiates change, HR professionals play a strong role in planning and anticipating employee challenges and resulting human reactions. Changes that affect how employees do their work, who they report to or other factors that change their day-to-day work activities typically draw resistance. Remember Johnson’s book “Who Moved My Cheese?” First, any change of this kind should be based on a good business reason because disruption is difficult for employees and unproductive for the company. I believe in the “don’t mess with employee routines unless it will preserve profits or company sustainability” theory of change at work. Employees should be given a candid explanation that, acknowledges it as a change that employees will have reactions to; that it is natural to feel frustrated; and indicates how the change is needed for a long-term positive impact on profits/expenses/ revenue. Most employees when faced with a change that helps the company in the long run, when supported through the change, will be reasonable.
Another way to help smooth unpopular or disruptive transitions is to manage their implementation. This means warning employees in advance where possible, or breaking big changes into phases that can be comunicated in advance over time. While it isn’t always possible to provide advance notice, warning employees and helping them through a transition can prevent unecessary suffering as well as disruptive turmoil, gossip and disgruntlement as employees vent their frustrations. This venting can be directed at peers and supervisors who may be powerless to offer explanations or support if your communications have been inadequate. A very basic prevention strategy is to tell employees where to go for more information and have that information at the ready.
Finally, provide charts, maps and tools that are easy for employees to reference and find useful information. If you’re changing medical insurance plans with an associated employee cost increase for example, be transparent and make a chart of the old and new with dollar differences. Yes it is highlighting negative information but it is also giving them information to make financial plans and budgets.
When leadership forgets these fundamentals about supporting employees, HR pros should be pushing back.
There are hundreds of free resources on managing change in the workplace.
3. Compassionate interventions for employee personal crises
For this one, you will have to detect subtle changes and recognize the early signs – when a supervisor complains that a good employee’s performance has suddenly declined. Part of your role will include noticing and talking about feelings! When the supervisor first approaches you, he/she might be describing signs of suffering and/or temporary impairment caused by an event. It’s easy to shift into seeing the employee as a poor performer. Our role, however, is to look at the clues and facts of each case and help their supervisor to do so as well. Early intervention for employees going through a challenging time is key to preventing unecessary suffering and fallout. It prevents further performance problems as well as possible employee relations issues among coworkers in their unit as one member’s work results are lower. Employees can get nasty when someone isn’t pulling their weight. They can blame the employee and become judgmental — fellow workers can lack a bigger picture view and sometimes just basic compassion.
The supervisor or employee might ask for some kind of policy exception you can’t approve but you can decline in a compassionate way. Say the employee wants extra paid time off but doesn’t have any accrued. Even though you may have to say no to additional paid time off, you can offer creative alternatives – two-weeks of part-time work, leaving early one day per week, etc. In addition, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a wonderful confidential support structure to help employees sort through challenging times. Employee suffering in reaction to upsetting events or personal changes can and typically does improve. Such crises have a beginning, middle and end. Getting good support can shorten healing time and prevent the onset of more serious symptoms that come from repression and denial. Allowing or encouraging an employee to speak to a sympathetic expert early on can make a significant positive difference in the outcome.
An increasing issue for employees at work is mental illness. Every HR manager should know the signs of common mental illness, such as depression, and have some means of providing Information to employees and supervisors. Postpartum depression and other situational depressions become more difficult to treat the longer they are ignored. You would see clear signs at work: worsening performance levels; difficulty concentrating or remembering things; withdrawal from co-workers; weight loss or gain and increasing requests for time off. Mental health experts urge employers to provide basic psycho-educational materials to supervisors and employees and an EAP is really essential here. Having the EAP allows a manager or HR professional to step back and hand off support to a trained professional who is required to maintain confidentiality. Also, watch for signs of trauma after a workplace event such as: serious employee injury, assault or crime that involves co-workers. Here is one of many resources you can access for help in this area: The Workplace Trauma Center.
Finally, when intervening with an employee, consider whether the supervisor needs to be brought into the communication loop and to what extent. HIPAA and other privacy concerns as well as the good of the employee and company must be balanced here. But when faced with this dilemma, I often choose to provide a little helpful information that will prevent the supervisor from unknowingly making the situation worse. Most HR folks have good instincts here.
4. Preventing prolonged unethical or abusive practices
This situation is tougher though it luckily doesn’t come up as often as the others. As an expert in abuse and intimidation in the workplace, I know that HR professionals are placed in difficult situations that require some deep reflection. If a company owner doesn’t want to fire an offending supervisor, you will likely be watching employees suffer. HR can use their skills to help a company owner see how this will be bad in the long run . I know this can be difficult with a rigid owner. If that is not successful, there are other strategies at your disposal – coach the offending supervisor or employee to extinguish the abusive behavior; provide advice and survival techniques to staff, such as boundary setting, etc. Abusive work situations left unresolved will result in turnover and it will be the employees you most want to keep – ethical & supportive folks who choose not to be a part of a toxic culture.
When the issues are mild, any combination of these approaches could work. On the other hand, I have seen incredible boss/subordinate abuse that goes way beyond anything that should be tolerated in the workplace. Unfortunately, some of these required an HR professional to look the other way or acquiesce until termination can be arranged. Many HR pros I know will stay to try to protect employees but then are caught in and ethical dilemma. In certain cases of serious and ongoing abuse, employees sue their employer. Sometimes they win. Even when they don’t win, court proceedings are public so all the world discovers the cruelty of company’s disrespectful or negligent practices. In this situation a bullying boss may push a victim into depression or other incapacitation. In one case I know of, the supervisor was so vindictive and controlling towards a particular employee that she made it clear that no one else in the department was to speak to her (ostracism). When the boss was in, no one spoke to her. When the boss was out, people were friendly in a noncommittal way. Sounds extreme but it happens more than you might think and it’s cruel and unfair.
Finally, it is morally wrong. I really don’t care how important the knowledge or expertise of an abusive supervisor. No one is truly irreplaceable, least of all someone who abuses others. He/she causes human suffering and work disruption that is frankly indefensible not to mention incredibly unproductive. Combining this with the risk of lawsuits may help to convince an owner to do something to address the behavior.
I was once asked by an owner to conduct a “performance counseling” for a supposed issue with an employee whom the owner had previously targeted. I was able to dodge this issue for a while but in the end, as the owner became increasingly insistent I realized I would have to eventually choose between doing something unethical or leaving. I left after 9 months.
The guiding principles to help you convince an owner to act on abusive behavior:
- Company sustainability;
- Fairness, respect and lawfulness;
- Employee health and well-being;
- The rights of all employees; and
- Loss prevention