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. In the course of their work with individuals in transition, however, they are witness to various human reactions to change. With change comes distress. Along the way, HR professionals have the opportunity to prevent distress, support employees through it, or ignore it through indifference and poor planning.
Two basic sources of Employee distress at work
Employee distress at work can be through 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, while a company could remain stable, employees have various personal issues which are increasingly affecting their 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 role in managing human behavior
HR helps employees through change in three distinct ways
- Implementation of sound company initiatives
- Respectful interventions when employee personal crises effect work performance
- Never helping to implement or prolong unethical or abusive practices
1. Sensible implementation of company-initiated change
The 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 “Who Moved My Cheese?” First, any change of this kind better be based on a good business reason because it will be a significant 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 first, acknowledges it as a change employees will have reactions to, that it is natural to feel frustrated, and second, indicates how the change is needed for a long-term positive impact on profits/expenses/ revenue.
Another way to help smooth unpopular transitions is to manage change implementation. This means warning employees in advance, where possible or breaking big changes into phases that give employees 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 from turmoil, gossip, disgruntlement and so forth as employees vent their frustrations to peers or supervisors who may be powerless to offer explanations or support.
Finally, provide charts, maps and tools that are easy for employees to reference and get useful information. If you are changing medical plans and there is an 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 affects work performance
Okay. For this one, you will have to notice subtle changes or at least recognize the early signs when a supervisor approaches you with complaints about a relatively good employee whose performance has decreased. You will also have to be comfortable noticing and talking about feelings! When the supervisor first approaches you, he/she may be describing signs of suffering and/or temporary impairment caused by an event or the employee’s reaction to something upsetting. Early intervention is key to preventing further performance problems as well as employee relations among work unit staff. Employees can get nasty when someone isn’t pulling their weight thereby burdening the remaining members. They can be judgmental and lack a bigger picture view.
You will have to be comfortable walking the fine line between compassionate noticing and snooping. You may be asked to allow something you know you can’t approve but you can say no in a compassionate way. Say the employee wants extra paid time off but doesn’t have any left. 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 EAP is a wonderful support and structure to help HR professionals promote employee well-being. Employee suffering in reaction to upsetting events or personal changes are not permanent. They have a beginning, middle and end. Getting good support can shorten healing time and prevent the onset of more serious symptoms. Simply speaking to an expert early on can make a huge positive difference in the outcome.
An increasing issue for employees at work is mental illness. Every HR manager should know the signs of 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 psycho-educational materials to supervisors and employees and a basic EAP is really essential here. Finally, 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 great in this kind of situation.
3. Never help to implement or prolong unethical or abusive practices
This one is tougher though it probably doesn’t come up quite as often as the other two situations. 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. The choices are to work on convincing the owner why this is a bad plan (call me for a free consult on persuasive facts to sell this idea); coach the offending supervisor; and/or provide advice and survival techniques to staff. When the issues are mild, any combination of these approaches will work. However, 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 ether look the other way or acquiesce. I know, it isn’t the typical scenario, but it happens. In most cases of serious and ongoing abuse the employees sued. Sometimes they win. Even if they didn’t win, court proceedings were made public so all the world will know about the company’s disrespectful or negligent practices. The greatest selling point to the owner in this situation is the risk that a bullying boss may pose for pushing a victim to 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 the victim. 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.
Twenty-one states have considered anti-bullying legislation aimed at these extreme victimizing cases. Public sympathy will be with the victim not the company.
Finally, it just isn’t right. I really don’t care how important the knowledge or expertise of the offending supervisor. No one is irreplaceable. He/she will cause human suffering and work disruption that is frankly indefensible. Combining this with the risk of lawsuits will help convince an owner to do something to address the offending behavior.
I was once asked by an owner to implement a “performance counseling” for something innocuous with an employee the owner had previously targeted. I was able to dodge this issue once but in the end, had to leave the position. The owner became more insistent and I gained awareness of the unethical approaches as the rule for this owner, rather than the exception.
The guiding principles here should be:
- Company sustainability;
- Fairness, respect and lawfulness;
- Employee health and well-being; and
- The rights of all employees.