Management wants it stopped; the employees want the lowdown. They both turn to the HR professional for answers.
To illustrate just how difficult a task squelching misinformation can be without lying, the Employers Resource Council held a P.E.E.P. (Professionalism, Etiquette, Ethics and Politics) show with four veteran HR professionals. The program was sponsored by ProResource Inc. Randstad, Ulmer & Berne LLP and UnitedHealthcare.
The experts were Rose Ann Kay, a human resources project specialist with the ERC who has held HR positions with Steris Corp. and Curtis Industries; Margaret A. Rice, director of HR for NetGenics Inc.; Kenneth C. Roberts, vice president, HR and equal opportunity at United Way Services; and Albert J. Tusek Jr., vice president of HR at Marine Mechanical Corp.
Before the program began, to show how difficult rumors can be to thwart, Brenda Blackmer, director of training and special events for the ERC, played a game of telephone, the children's game in which one person starts a message and it's whispered from person to person. By the time it gets to the last person, more often than not, the message is hopelessly garbled.
The original message? "Seven people from the customer service department are going to get 5 1/2 percent raises in two months."
By the time the program started, the message had traveled less than half way around the room. Its translation? "There's a contest and we're going to get 10 percent."
Like the rumors circulating around your company, it makes little sense, but that doesn't stop them from propagating as quickly as the I Love You e-mail virus and creating as much damage. Here are four scenarios companies face every day and what the experts say can be done about them.
Your next-door neighbor of several years works as an engineer at your company. Your kids go to school with his kids, you attend neighborhood picnics together and your spouses golf together on the weekends. During the last couple of days, word has spread about your company losing a major government contract and rumors have been circulating about a possible downsizing.
After work one day, your neighbor comes across the lawn and begins grilling you about the possibility of losing his job. What do you say?
"I'll listen," says Kay.
While sometimes just letting someone vent is enough of an issue, Kay says, "It's not appropriate to comment on the matter." The problem an employee faces in this situation is fear of the unknown.
"It's about power and empowerment of individuals," she says.
- Think before you speak. It's OK to pause and collect your thoughts before responding. Don't feel compelled to answer immediately with a response you may regret later.
- Acknowledge the emotion involved. Remember, your employees are people, too.
- When you don't know, say you don't know.
- Don't lie. It may come back to haunt you. If the truth is unacceptable, keep your response simple and vague.
It's springtime -- time to take advantage of the student employee population to get some landscaping done around the company grounds. You have several qualified applicants who have some great experience. However, your CEO approaches you with the idea of not just interviewing -- but hiring -- his nephew for the job.
You've worked at the company for a long time and you know this kid. He has a reputation as a huge troublemaker and you know he's never done a drop of yard work in his life. You've got all these other qualified applicants. Do you hire him?
Rice suggests saying the youth would be put through the same process as the other candidates. If the company holds to its values and ethics, it shouldn't be a problem.
Tusek agrees. As an HR professional, you have a responsibility to be frank and honest with the CEO, he says.
At that moment, a voice from the audience illustrated the frustration, and perhaps a bit of the real life situation at many companies with, "That kid's hired in my world."
Recognizing that the directive of the CEO can be much more than a "suggestion," Roberts suggests trying to find room in the budget to hire two candidates, the nephew and the applicant who truly deserves the position.
- Recognize that one of the most crucial aspects of your job is professionalism. Practice it every day.
- Recognize when you're in over your head. Utilize other resources when appropriate, such as legal counsel.
Morale is low in the accounting department. Several employees have been e-mailing back and forth with biting remarks about the department manager. One of these communications gets inadvertently e-mailed to the department manager himself.
He reads it and sends a copy to you, demanding that you fire all these people immediately. What kind of suggestions do you give the department manager about how to handle the situation?
The first thing that needs to be done is to neutralize the situation, Tusek says. A group meeting or some training might be in order.
Rice suggests sitting down the with supervisor and trying to get the individual to look at it as an opportunity for learning more about what his or her workers need. Putting it a little more colorfully she said, "In a pile of (crap), there's a pony in there somewhere."
Roberts also suggests making sure the company has standards for e-mail and Internet use and enforcing those rules.
- Write out a script for the communication.
- Practice the script several times in front of a mirror (at home, not at work).
Here comes the most dreaded part of your job. You have to terminate an employee for poor performance. It's Wednesday afternoon. You have a couple of choices about when to do this. Should you do it immediately to give the employee a couple of business days left in the week to start a job search? Or do you wait until Friday so the employee has time to "digest" what's happened?
"Be sure it's what you want to do," Kay says. "Wednesday is a better day because employees will need to ask questions. You need to be available."
Make sure you treat the employee with dignity, Tusek says.
Roberts agrees, suggesting that you tell the employee so that he or she can leave for lunch and just not come back to collect personal items until a prearranged time later in the day after everyone has gone home.
"If you're terminating an employee for poor performance, it better not be a surprise," Rice says.
Create a checklist:
- What do you want to accomplish with your message?
- What are the possible outcomes and reactions?
- Whom will it impact?
- What is the timing of the communication?
Daniel G. Jacobs (email@example.com) is senior editor of SBN.