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“Please stop ruining your company” – HR’s role in dealing with difficult bosses

I have been fortunate enough to have been asked to speak at my SHRM chapter in May and the topic will be HR’s role in dealing with difficult people.  Human Resources professionals have consistently been growing into a strategic presence in organizations and we are often relied upon at the senior planning table to help articulate, conceptualize and implement plans to achieve organizational goals.  This is an absolute win and I have seen how organizations benefit from having us be part of the process.  As most people have experienced at one point or another in their lives, however, even the best laid strategic plan will fail in the hands of toxic people.  This is truly where a skilled HR professional can bring maximum value to their role.  

But it’s not easy.

Anyone who has been in a senior HR role for any amount of time will have experienced the ‘bad boss’ phenomenon.  It starts with rumblings or maybe an employee or two in your office talking about what a ‘jerk’ such-and-such manager is.  Further investigation reveals that yes, the manager in question is not upholding corporate values and is inconsistent, disrespectful or even downright mean.  Although this is not pleasant, it is somewhat routine for a seasoned HR professional (or great consultant/coach) to address first or second level managers on their conduct.  

But what do you do when the toxic person is the most senior executive, owner and/or your boss?  I have spoken to countless HR professionals and this is probably the number one reason why great HR people leave organizations.  For that matter, it’s the number one reason why any great people leave an organization.  From an HR perspective, this can be one of the most challenging and stressful experiences to deal with.  There are many different ‘difficult people’ profiles an owner can fall into but as a very general rule these people are: Highly driven, perfectionist, high need for control, intelligent, somewhat blind to their weaknesses, capable, achievement oriented and tending to take things very seriously.  Frankly, these skills are necessary for entrepreneurs and almost any owner or CEO will have these traits to an extent.  The ‘difficult’ part comes in when one or more of these attributes outweighs others or eclipses their social/emotional intelligence.  That is the recipe for toxicity.

When the owner of the company is creating a culture that is drastically undermining the mission of the organization there are only three outcomes: 
1)    They will realize what they are doing, become willing to change their approach and do so
2)    They will realize what they are doing, become willing to change their approach but be unable to do so
3)    They will refuse to acknowledge the destructiveness of their behavior and refuse to change.  

Usually the ‘realization’ comes from a series of very predictable pain points such as employee turnover, customer loss or other negative feedback.  This is a critical point of impact for the HR profiessional.  Often, we will be the ones requested to present this information to the owner.  This is a very vulnerable position and needs to be handled carefully.  It is my experience that until this pain point is reached, change is unlikely.  More often than not, the HR professional, as messenger will be the focus of the owner’s discontent with the feedback.  Just because this is uncomfortable, does not mean it should be avoided.  There comes a time in everyone’s professional career where we must weigh out what’s right and wrong as well as whether we are willing to continue in a situation if it doesn’t change.  In other words, working with the toxic owner also will produce a pain point spurring action.

Once the owner realizes their problem and becomes willing to change the HR professional is again a valuable asset.  We can either provide access to coaching or sometimes we are the coaches and this will be both challenging and rewarding.  

There are also the situations where the owner does not acknowledge a problem with their behavior and to the HR professional and much of the organization the behavior is intolerable.  When this happens, unfortunately there are not many alternatives.  IF the behavior is truly egregious the company’s future success is in jeopardy.  It is sometimes worthwhile to stage an intervention with other key executives in the company to try to force a realization on the part of the owner but if that does not produce a desire to change, it may be time to select a new opportunity.  

In the end, becoming adept at helping bad bosses become great leaders is one of the most important contributions of a talented HR Professional. 

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The “We Value People” Series Part 3: Communication

We’ve been talking about what it means when an organization says ‘We value our people” (and they almost all say this).  We’ve discussed why it means different things to employers and employees and how to recruit for culture versus just skills.  Another thing I have found in every organization I’ve worked with or in is that they have identified ‘communication’ as an issue.  Because this is so endemic, I thought it useful to unpack this.
When ‘Communication’ is identified as an issue, it is because a pain point is being triggered.  Employers and employees have different pain point around the topic of communication, but the pain points usually center around:

Delivery:  The person communicating is perceived as rude, abrasive or untrustworthy
Frequency: The communication doesn’t happen often enough, so people feel uninformed
Promptness:  It is taking too long to receive a response to your request for communication
Content: There is not clarity about instructions, roles, responsibilities or expectations

Everyone has different thresholds about what is acceptable in terms of delivery, frequency, promptness and content.  If your needs are being met, you think there is good communication.  If your needs are not being met, you will not.  It is not possible to satisfy everyone based on this.  The answer is not simply to push more ‘information’ throughout the company.   So what is the answer?  

Again, it lies in expectations.  Unmet expectations always result in frustration, so it is critical for leadership to develop a communication protocol.  Decide for your organization what your protocol will be for the four factors.  Be realistic but optimistic when developing this.  Hopefully, your goal is to create as pleasant and functional a culture as possible, so you want to make sure you are creating standards that will result in efficiency and positivity.  On the other hand, you also want to be practical and create something that will work based on you as well as the industry you are in.  

Let’s take an example.  You have identified that delivery is an issue.  You are in a fast paced environment where attention to detail is paramount and it has been communicated that employees find some leaders ‘abrasive’.  You do not want rude or abrasive communication from your leaders, but you also know that you are not going to get particularly ‘warm and fuzzy’ on a regular basis.  You can set an expectation that communication will be direct and succinct, and also work with leaders on adding more warmth.   

Go through each factor and develop your communication strategy, then COMMUNICATE IT.  

Your communication strategy needs to be communicated to new and existing employees often.  And it goes without saying that leaders in the organization must model this, adhere to it and live it.  What will happen is that you will define your culture through this process.  This does not mean you will retain every employee.  Those for whom your communication philosophy is unacceptable will not stay.  That’s okay because you will attract people for whom this is the perfect environment and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.