HR professionals working in American corporations and small businesses wear many hats. The overall role is to align talent strategies with business goals & ensure compliance with regulations. A broader strategic assignment is to support a healthy supportive atmosphere (culture) for employees and company sustainability. In the course of their 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 indifference and poor planning.
Two basic 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. On the other hand, though a company could be stable 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 three distinct ways
- Sensible implementation of company-initiated change
- Respectful interventions when employee personal crises effect work performance
- Preventing prolonged unethical or abusive practices
1. Sensible implementation of company-initiated change
People need time to adjust to change, when it’s the company initiating change, HR professionals play a strong role in planning and anticipating 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 strong reactions. Remember Johnson’s book “Who Moved My Cheese?” First, any change of this kind must be based on a good business reason because it will result in some disruption. I believe in the “don’t mess with employee routines unless it will improve profits or company sustainability” theory of change at work. Employees should be given an 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.
Another way to help smooth unpopular or disruptive transitions is to thoughtfully manage their implementation. This means warning employees in advance where possible or breaking big changes into phases that give them time to adjust. While it isn’t always possible to provide advance notice, warning employees and helping them through a transition can save massive headaches resulting from turmoil, gossip, disgruntlement and so forth as employees vent their frustrations. This venting can include peers and supervisors who may be powerless to offer explanations or support.
Finally, provide charts, maps and tools that are easy for employees to reference and gather useful information. If you’re changing medical plans with an associated employee cost increase, 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.
There are hundreds of free resources on managing change in the workplace.
2. Respectful interventions when employee personal crises effect work performance
For this one, you will have to detect subtle changes and recognize the early signs – like when a supervisor complains about a good employee whose performance has suddenly declined. Prepare yourself. You must also be comfortable 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 or the employee’s reaction to an upsetting event. Early intervention is key to preventing further performance problems as well as possible employee relations issues among coworkers in their unit. Employees can get nasty when someone isn’t pulling their weight. They can blame the employee and become judgmental — lacking a bigger picture view and sometimes just basic compassion.
You will have to be comfortable walking the fine line between compassionate noticing and snooping. The supervisor or employee might ask for something 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 this, 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 support and structure to help the company promote employee well-being. 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 education to 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 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 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. 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 are naturally great in this kind of situation.
3. Preventing prolonged unethical or abusive practices
This situation is tougher though it luckily doesn’t come up quite as often as the other two. As an expert in abuse and intimidation in the workplace, I know that HR professionals are placed in difficult situations that require some deep thinking. If a company owner doesn’t want to fire an offending supervisor, you will likely be watching employees suffer. HR’s options are convincing the owner why this is a bad plan – I know this can be very difficult with a rigid owner; coach the offending supervisor or employee to extinguish the offending behavior; and/or provide advice and survival techniques to staff, such as boundary setting, etc.
When the issues are mild, any combination of these approaches could work. On the other hand, I have seen and read about some 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. I know, it isn’t the typical scenario but it happens. In many cases of serious and ongoing abuse, employees sued their employer. Sometimes they win. Even when they didn’t win, court proceedings were public so all the world discovers the cruelty of company disrespectful or negligent practices. The greatest selling point to the owner in this situation is the risk that 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. 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.
Finally, it just isn’t right, morally. 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 and costs the company in lost productivity. Combining this with the risk of lawsuits may help to convince an owner to do something to address the offending 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, had to leave the position. The owner became more insistent and my eyes were opened to his unethical approaches as a pattern of behavior rather than an isolated matter.
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