Leadership Barometer 39 Stop Enabling Problem Employees

February 23, 2020

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules.

It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months or even years.

Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room.

The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day.

When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale and trust.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. The excuse was that his process knowledge was so important to the organization that he could not be fired.

Finally, the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?”

Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away or fearing that the cure will be worse than the disease.

The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group.

Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. You also run the risk of appearing to play favorites when you try to clamp down on other individuals.

The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions.

It is not possible to treat everyone always the same because people have different needs, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored.

One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic.

This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better.

If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


The role of HR in Mergers

June 19, 2011

In any merger or acquisition, one of the most taxed groups is the Human Resources Department. The success of the venture and the health of the resulting merged organization in the future are highly dependent on the skill and dedication of the combined HR unit. It would be tempting to downsize the HR function early in the merger process, since duplicate staff functions are generally trimmed as a result of any merger. That would be a big mistake.

HR has so many different and critical roles during the integration, having to perform them all flawlessly during an extended transition with reduced staff would result in high jeopardy for the business. Let’s look at a sampling of new roles to be played by HR during a merger. These are over and above the normal listing of roles that keep all HR staff hopping in steady state times.

Advocating for the people process during all negotiations

The process leading up to a merger can take many months or even years. During that time, both organizations are expected to run normally, with top performance, because each one is being scrutinized for valuation purposes. The HR staff must keep all elements of the planned merger under wraps for legal reasons while simultaneously analyzing the potential impact of the merger.

Creating uniform policies

HR policies and procedures need to be shaped to the new reality. This involves working with key stakeholders in both units to sort out a steady stream of issues, like flex work plans, vacation plans, salary rationalization, benefits alignment, movement of people, communication systems, and numerous other critical operational decisions. In these decisions, the HR role is that of a pivot player with management and the workforce.

Working to blend the cultures

Historically, when mergers fail to produce expected results, it is often due to the inability of the cultures to blend into a homogeneous hybrid culture. A classic case example of this was the Daimler Chrysler merger where the two cultures never did merge. The more formal style of the Daimler culture and the more free-flowing style of Chrysler made an integration impossible. HR must take the lead at bringing in the appropriate resources (such as teambuilding experts or leadership improvement consultants) early in the integration to keep the two old cultures from becoming calcified and rigid. It is during the integration process that all kinds of dysfunctional and even childish behaviors may become evident at all levels.

Sorting through downsizings

Inherent in most mergers is the ability to trim back on redundant functions in the staff areas and even in production groups. This is a critical issue for any merger process. HR must ensure that any downsizing activity is done fairly and with the appropriate sensitivity to the welfare of impacted individuals. When reductions do occur, it is often the people staying who feel like the true losers, because they need to survive in a working world that sometimes seems untenable. Usually HR is involved in trying to prop up sagging morale before, during, and after downsizing efforts.

Advocating for transparency

Information dissemination during a merger process is a critical element, and HR is usually at least partly involved in the roll out of information. The ultimate level of trust in the merged group will be closely linked to the level of transparency people witness during the various phases. The conundrum between what must be kept under wraps and what can be shared at any point in time is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Eventually all the pieces fit into place and the big picture can be viewed, but along the way it really does matter which piece is played at any point in time. HR takes on many roles from advisor to top management, to conduit for information, to designing communication processes and being a sounding board for feedback.

Training Integration

The Learning Management Systems (LMS) of the two entities are likely to be different. Each group will want to hang onto their familiar way of scheduling and tracking the training activities of their people. Major battles can erupt over the work required to convert from one LMS to a different one. The “victor” is perceived to have “won” over the group that needs to retool. Hard feelings over this issue can last for years. Sometimes a blending of the two systems works well where both groups are called upon to modify their past patterns.

Minimizing distractions

What is the name of the merged unit? If both names of the separate units are in the new name, which one comes first? Which CEO is perceived to be the top dog and which one has to get used to being second in command or needs to leave? What will the logo look like? Who gets to reside in the prime real estate? What outside training group is selected? On and on, the issues seem endless, and what appear to be rather straight forward decisions quickly become emotionally charged.

It is common in a merger to have both parties feel beleaguered and put out by the other party. It is hard to maintain objectivity and the perception of fairness when groups feel they are under attack. What might seem like a fair split of the pain to top managers may feel incredibly lopsided to both groups on the shop floor.
The workload of HR during the entire process from first inkling to full integration is many times what will occur in a steady state operation. That is why it is important to not downsize any seemingly redundant HR resources until full integration and stability have been achieved.