human resources

What to Do When Your Boss Asks You to Compromise Your Ethics

Employees being asked to act immorally by their boss have become far too common. The dilemma is—what to do? And how to do you weigh the price that whistleblowers usually have to pay such as lack of advancement, alienation and even reprisal? Daniel Victor in the New York Times’ Smarter Living column explored this question recently and based on my research forFrom Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire, I disagree with some of the advice he offers.

I agree with Victor that employees should first make sure that they didn’t misunderstand their supervisor’s request. There are times when things are poorly stated and it’s imperative that this isn’t misinterpreted. But let’s say that the request was crystal clear—what do you do next?

 First, determine if this request restricted to just this manager in this department, or is it something being enacted throughout the organization? Second, forego human resources, which in my experience is usually part of the problem, and send an anonymous note to the audit committee of the Board of Directors apprising them of an ethics issue and request an investigation. In your note indicate that if there is no response within a set limit of time you will seek external recourse with legal representation, the media, or both.

Under no circumstances would I recommend following Victor’s advice to expose the situation internally—this could be fraught with danger. Had the employees who went from victim to villain at Wells Fargo exposed the scandal in the manner I advocate, their story would have had a far happier ending.

Photo credit: BIGSTOCK

Why Reporting Sexual Harassment to HR is Ineffective

Stop me if you heard this one—a female employee gets sexually harassed by her supervisor and reports it to Human Resources. HR tells her that she can transfer to another department to get away from him, but because it’s his first offense and he’s a star performer, there’s little they can do. The employee transfers and learns from other female employees that the former supervisor has harassed many of them. They go back to HR, which does nothing. The latest example of this happened at Uber, according to the New York Times, which picked up the story from the employee’s own blog.

This sort of ineffectiveness is all too frequent from HR departments. They often seem more interested in protecting the bullies than dealing with abuse. In fact, when I talk with employees at speaking events around the country, the most common response to the question “Did HR help you?” is that the department is in management’s pocket and the visit was a waste of time.

We’ve seen this play out over and over again—Fox News, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and so on. This is why I devoted a chapter in my book From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire to sexual bullying. Until we recognize the right of every employee to enjoy a psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplace and make that a priority for Human Resources, sexual harassment will continue to harm victims as well as the company.


Actions Speak Louder than Words in Forming Workplace Culture

This article is dead on. Many business leaders think they can lead their companies with words rather than actions – but actions, even the small ones, speak a lot louder than any promises made about customer or employee satisfaction. When a company utilizes ticker-timer on call length, as cited in this NYT article, it has a more substantive impact on the psychology of a workplace than anything the CEO might say about taking the time to truly service clients. These kinds of decisions the things that indicate what an organization truly values – and when what a company’s stated goals are different from the ones in practice, it’s a recipe for potential disaster. And, it now looks like former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf is learning that lesson the hard way. 

Photo: John Stumpf testifying before the House Financial Services Committee. Credit: Al Drogo via NYT.

Kimberly-Clark: How a Company Lost Its Soul

More and more companies seem to be instituting management software and scrapping their existing performance management systems, like Kimberly-Clark, under the premise that these new management systems are actually good for their employees. In principle, having more regular “check-ins” rather than yearly reviews sounds like an improvement for workplace culture. Having a digital system track employees’ feelings sounds like a substantive attempt at measuring workplace culture. All of these things “sound good.”

However, the truth is a lot more complicated than that, and a lot more troubling. Firstly, as documented in this article from The Wall Street Journal, the celebration of a high rate of turnover is a definite red-flag. Going from a family-type organization where employees didn’t have to worry about layoffs, to an organization focused on weeding out “dead wood” is not something to be celebrated. The turnover at Kimberly-Clark is approximately 10% annually, and that’s something they’re telling their employees is a good thing: “Among the employees whose work was rated ‘unacceptable’ or ‘inconsistent,’ 44% left the company voluntarily or were let go. [Chief HR Officer] Ms. Gottung said she is ‘pretty pleased’ that low-performer turnover has been rising.” Being proud of a high rate of turnover is a problem, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Additionally, according to the article, only 25% of the comments received by Kimberly-Clark on their management software, Workforce, were considered “constructive,” with the rest being seen as “neutral” or mostly positive with no further breakdown. I would interpret the word “constructive” as “negative” in this context, and I would go even further to say that this is typical of the way most engagement surveys are seen by their companies. Most companies that use these types of surveys tend to emphasize the positives, rather than using the “constructive” criticism to actually improve their organization. The focus is placed on eliminating low-producing or unfulfilled employees, rather than trying to improve their productivity by making sure that the right people do the right tasks in the right way at the right time – or, as the rest of us call it, basic management. The goal becomes to lose what management sees as “dead weight,” without regard for these employees as people – relying exclusively on cold management systems to do most of the dirty work.

The argument for these kinds of management systems is that they can help managers weed out poor performers, which can cut down on costs. While Kimberly-Clark’s stock prices have risen since they started implementing their own management software, these HR changes aren’t really seen as the instigators of that change. As the WSJ article states, “Behind-the-scenes changes to human-resources practices are largely invisible to analysts… [who] attribute Kimberly-Clark’s rising stock price to declining commodity prices, aggressive cost-cutting, growth in emerging markets and a generous dividend payout.” If costs were such an issue for the company, and if excess employees are seen as the source of those excess costs, it begs the question – what have the managers been doing for all of these years? Long-term shareholders should have challenged Kimberly-Clark for not managing performance, if it was viewed as a problem serious enough to completely shift their HR outlook.

Fundamentally, what it comes down to is that these types of computerized management systems take the human element out of the way people are managed and assessed. They enable management structures to turn their backs on their employees without looking them in the eyes. At their base level, these systems are tools for deflection rather than tools for progress. Placing a low-performing employee on a “performance improvement plan” is the kiss of death. One bad review can cost you your job. These systems enable workplace bullying and mismanagement more then they truly help, even if they appear on the surface to be more regular than yearly reviews.

Here’s a suggestion: how about, instead of only speaking to employees once a year, or only receiving digital “check ins” from them somewhat regularly, managers try the radically advanced strategy of actually speaking to their employees? Far more can be learned about an employee’s work load, performance and perspective by just stopping by his or her desk and asking how they’re doing. It’s simple, but it can make a huge difference, both for workplace culture itself and for evaluating workers.

Photo: Liz Gottung, chief human resources officer, and Scott Boston, vice president of human resources, at Kimberly-Clark’s Roswell, Ga., campus. PHOTO: DUSTIN CHAMBERS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Communication is Key for Workplace Culture

“At its core, culture is about the humanization of a business.” I love this sentiment. Communication truly is key to creating a positive, psychologically safe workplace culture, more than trendy perks like free lunch or massages. For managers and employees alike, being mindful of communication is the best way to support the productivity of others while simultaneously establishing an environment built around openness and clarity. Face-to-face discussions about business functions are fundamental to team building and growth. I agree with Ramakrishnan’s contention that video meetings are essential for remote employees to feel a sense of culture, but the importance of actually speaking to coworkers is just as essential in the office as it is out of it. You can read Ramakrishnan's full piece on communication in the workplace at The Huffington Post

Transforming HR for the Next Generation of Business

I have mixed feelings about the concept of human resources in business. In concept, it’s a great idea; in practice, HR departments can sometimes compound problems within dysfunctional workplace cultures. However, as discussed in this article, the new startup culture shuns the idea of HR – and it often puts non-white, non-male employees in a tricky position. While I’m hesitant to break down the importance of HR in terms of race or gender, I do think that the notion of having a person in a position to be an advocate for employees who feel like they’re being treated unfairly is essential to any growing business. I understand and agree with many criticisms of modern HR culture, which startups are pushing back against, but I think that rather than abandoning HR specialists in favor of substitute software, we should be transforming the way we think about HR to improve it for a new generation of businesses. Read the full article at Fast Company.

Image: Jacob Lund via Shutterstock via Fast Company