Tag Archives: Management

Favorite Firings: Stray Discriminatory Comments by Management Complicate Litigation


operation-540597_1280In the Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory newsletter for December 4, 2017, there were three cases reported that dealt with comments by management personnel about employees. In each case, when the employee sued, the employer was unable to get past a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment. Thus, in all three cases, the company faced lengthy litigation that might have been avoided, had managers been more careful with what they said.

THE FACTS:

In Creese v. District of Columbia, Case No. 16-2440 (RMC), D.C.D.C., Nov. 11, 2017, a corrections officer alleged that he was fired because he was not “manly” enough. His supervisor had made a few comments such as, “[n]o pretty boys needed in jail, so you need to take your earrings out.” The judge found that plaintiff produced enough evidence of impermissible gender stereotyping to survive a motion to dismiss his Title VII and Section 1983 claims.

In Sestak v. Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, Case No. 16-C-6354, N.D. Ill., Nov. 28, 2017, plaintiff Sestak, a labor and delivery nurse, alleged age discrimination after she was discharged for cause. She claimed that an unidentified individual stated that “older nurses would have difficulty” complying with new guidelines because older nurses “are too slow and spend too much time with patients” and that one of her supervisors stated that “older nurses’ often have difficulty understanding when the mother and baby become separate patients.” The court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

In Carter v. A&E Supported Living, Inc., Case No. 16-00574-N, S.D. Ala., Nov. 29, 2017, a nurse was removed from the shift schedule at a group home for intellectually disabled individuals and then sued for pregnancy discrimination. She cited supervisors’ comments to her as evidence that she was removed from her work schedule because of her pregnancy and/or the related “high risk” conditions that the supervisors believed her pregnancy presented. One supervisor stated plaintiff “was at risk to be hurt and [she] didn’t want that for her or her unborn child, for her baby; nor did [she] want to put the people that [the employer] serve at risk…” Plaintiff was required to provide medical documentation that it was safe for her and her unborn child for her to perform the duties of her position. The judge denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

THE MORAL:

The general legal standard is that stray comments in the workplace do not automatically lead to violations of the discrimination laws. However, they can be evidence of a discriminatory intent. And, of course, the more egregious and frequent the remarks, the more likely courts are to find liability. I’ve written other posts (see here and here and here) about how supervisory comments can get their employers into trouble.

In each of these cases, the employer put forth nondiscriminatory reasons for the actions taken against the employee. But the existence of the supervisors’ comments about pregnancy or gender or age complicated the cases enough to let the judges refuse to grant the defendants’ dispositive motions. The employers may end up winning these cases, but they face lengthy and expensive litigation before they do. Settling the cases may prove to be the better option.

Moreover, in the environment we face today, with heightened sensitivity toward sexual harassment and discriminatory remarks, employers would be well advised to re-emphasize the need to avoid even casual comments about employees’ health, appearance, and any other topics that might touch on a protected status.

It’s a shame that we must be so careful in the workplace and avoid many topics of everyday conversation, but it’s the safest course. As demonstrated by these three cases decided by different courts in recent weeks, supervisory comments continue to present litigation challenges to employers. It is best to involve Human Resources and lawyers if there is any question about what topics are permissible to discuss.

What’s your opinion on the current state of conversation in the workplace?

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Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Law, Management, Workplace

Alpha Dogs and Leadership


dogs-1231010_1280Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.

My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.

One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)

I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”

I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.

I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.

I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.

How did servant leadership work for me?

Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.

However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.

What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?

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Filed under Diversity, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Politics, Workplace

How to Avoid Burnout When There’s Always Too Much Work


work-2196609_640Memorial Day weekend is the traditional beginning of summer. In many workplaces the pace slows during the summer months—maybe it slows a little, maybe it slows a lot. For employees who are burned out, the more relaxed pace might help.

Still, in today’s 24/7 world, the slowdown of summer might not be enough. In fact, one of my most stressful times as an employee was one July and August when I was assigned to defend a major lawsuit. I had to take on this new work even though none of my existing work had gone away.

After a few weeks, I realized I couldn’t juggle the caseload I had. I was leaving the office completely frustrated every evening. Finally, I talked to my department head about how to reallocate the workload.

It was that or quit. I was that burned out.

A recent article in Fortune, “The Solution to Avoiding Burnout That Nobody Tells You,” by Laura Chambers, published May 10, 2017, tells of a time when the author’s supervisor told her she would have to learn to drop some balls to avoid burnout. This is counterintuitive for most high-performing employees.

Actually, author Laura Chambers describes a more nuanced approach to managing the workload than simply not doing projects. She describes two kinds of employees, the burnouts and the droppers, and says neither is ideal.

She says that when there’s too much work to accomplish, the best approach is to become a “communicating prioritizer.” She suggests identifying what you believe the top priorities to be, discussing them with your supervisor and team to be sure there is agreement on what the priorities are, then focusing on the highest priorities.

As a manager, Ms. Chambers says about her staff:

“When they communicate their priorities, it shows me that they’re on their game, they’re confident about where they’re headed, and I know I can count on them delivering with confidence. It also demonstrates that they’re managing their own work-life balance, rather than relying on someone else to manage it for them.”

Turns out, I didn’t do so badly in going to my manager to discuss what I could do and what I couldn’t. I was communicating, as Ms. Chambers recommends. However, in retrospect, I see that if I had offered more proactive suggestions myself on how to reallocate the work, I might have done better. My manager and I worked it out, but I put most of the burden of prioritizing on him.

And perhaps Ms. Chambers’s manager could have done better by helping her prioritize than by telling her to drop some balls.

How have you managed periods of burnout in your career?

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Lessons Learned in Office Remodels and Relocations


beige-316396_640Over the years, I’ve been involved in two corporate department remodels, once as one of the primary designers of the new office space, and the other time as a department chair when members of my staff worked on the layout and logistics. Neither was an enjoyable experience, but I learned important lessons along the way. Here are my primary takeaways:

1. Have size and space guidelines, but don’t be rigid

One of the remodels involved attorneys, who insisted they needed private offices because of attorney/client privilege issues. But some of the lawyers were not high enough in the corporate hierarchy to warrant private offices in the corporate guidelines. The attorneys won that argument.

In the other remodel, some Human Resources managers received private offices and others at the same pay grade did not. The decisions rested on who spent significant time counseling employees. Those who did not get private offices had access to small conference room near their cubicles.

The biggest issues actually involved administrative personnel, some of whom dealt with significant amounts of paper and needed more space than the guidelines permitted. In retrospect, more individuality would have been a good thing.

With today’s move away from cubicles to more open space environments, these issues may become even more significant. Have a philosophy, but allow for exceptions when warranted.

2. Keep technology needs in mind

The legal office redesign I worked on came at a time when personal computers were just beginning to be used. Some lawyers were technologically adept, and others had never used a PC. But we mandated space, equipment, and Ethernet connectivity for everyone.

In both of the remodels I was involved with, file storage was a critical need. Over time, the move to paperless work environments are likely to accelerate. These days, large monitors, wi-fi access, or portable tablets may be the critical features necessary for efficiency.

But what will the technology of the future require? Involve your IT personnel in anticipating what your office will need in the next five years at least . . . the next decade if you can see that far into the future.

3. Natural light is important for morale

One of my departments moved to space that was underground. We did everything we could with pale colored walls and good lighting, but we couldn’t avoid the feeling that we worked in a cave.

The other department moved from underground space to space with windows. The temptation was to put managerial offices against the windows, but we avoided that. We kept the windows open to all, which made our support personnel feel much more valued. Those managers who had enclosed offices had to step outside to get a view (which was only of a parking garage anyway), which helped keep them less isolated from their staff.

4. Give your planning team leeway to make decisions

There are a myriad of daily decisions involved in relocating a department. How to lay out the space, what color paint, fabrics for the furniture, just to name a few. The planning team should be empowered to make most of these decisions—or at least to narrow the options. That’s why they’re on the team.

If the department head reserves all decisions for himself or herself, the planning team will end up demoralized, management time will be wasted, and the plan will be idiosyncratic and unlikely to stand the test of time.

5. Involve all employees in the process

Just because there is a planning team doesn’t mean that other employees should have no say in the process. Hold a kick-off meeting where everyone can voice opinions. It will help the remodel team to know which issues are emotional for employees.

And have a few milestone meetings or send out periodic updates to the whole department. Keep people informed on the progress and timeline and what decisions have been made to date.

beige-316395_6406. Make it fun

One of the planning teams in our remodel called themselves the “MOO-ve” team. They adopted a cow logo which they included on all their communications. At least we had something to laugh about as we sorted through forty-plus years of files before the department relocated.

Those are six lessons I learned during my work on office relocations. Here’s an article with another list of lessons learned. And for articles on the nitty-gritty of planning an office remodel, see here and here.

What have you learned when relocating an office?

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How Do I Get My Priorities Accomplished? Integrating the Ivy Lee Method and Real Life


2a83xpt89bWe are one-quarter through 2017. Have you accomplished 25% of your goals for the year? Are you on track to complete your goals? If not, you may be working on the wrong things. So how do we make ourselves more productive? How do we stay focused on our highest priorities?

There are many consultants and coaches who purport to have systems. One such system is the Ivy Lee Method (for more, see here and here), which says to spend a few minutes at the end of each day determining the six most important things to accomplish the next day. This methodology requires discipline to limit yourself to six items. Then prioritize those six items in order of importance.

At the start of the next day, begin with the most important task, and do not do anything else until it is finished. Then move on to the second task. And so forth, to see how far on the six items you can get, always completing each item before moving on to a lower priority item.

Put your unfinished items on the list of six for the next day, unless they are of lower priority than six other items to be accomplished the next day.

Do this every day.

No more than six items. Work the list in order of priority. Every day.

In theory, this system is good. But most of us have interruptions we cannot avoid. Or meetings we have to attend. We do not control our time sufficiently to work through one item on the list to completion before we must move on to something else.

The solution, I think, is to wrest back control of our time to the maximum extent we can. If you’ve tried the Ivy Lee method or some other process, and it isn’t working for you, here are some specific solutions:

1. Reduce your list of daily priorities to four or five items. There is no magic to the number six. Maybe on days when you know you have only a little time available, accomplishing one or two tasks is all that is reasonable. But make those tasks count—still choose your most important priorities.

2. Cut the items on your list into smaller chunks, and prioritize the chunks. Instead of an item like “contact all my stakeholders,” you list each phone call you need to make in order of priority. Most significant projects take a long time to accomplish. What is the one step that will move the project forward most significantly? Put that step on your priority list for the next day.

3. Make sure you have some time on your calendar each day for solitary work. Eliminate meetings where possible. Reserve time on your calendar. If you have an assistant who schedules your time, make sure your assistant knows your solitary time is inviolable. (Except, perhaps, for your spouse or the CEO.)

4. Delegate projects to others, or eliminate them. If certain projects are never making it to your list of six priorities, then perhaps they should not be among your goals for the year. Discuss them with your manager and make sure the two of you are in agreement on how you are prioritizing them.

5. Reserve time for interruptions. There will be times when your managers or external authorities impose new priorities on you. In my own situation, I often found that my inviolate work time was violated by my managers or high-maintenance clients. Then it became a matter of reserving even more time, so that I had time for the interruptions as well as the high-priority tasks for the day.

Planning is critical to getting things done. So make your plan work for you. And remember, when planning your discretionary time, you are accountable for what you do and what you don’t do.

When have you had difficulty planning and prioritizing?

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Manage Yourself Before You Can Lead Others


executive-1668932_640I’ve been following the folks at Contented Cows for many years now. Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden call themselves employee engagement experts. The name of their business comes from their first book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk: The Plain Truth About Employee Relations and Your Bottom Line. Although they say they are employee engagement experts, their website states, “We develop leaders, period.” They write about employee engagement, but mostly in the context of how leaders create the kinds of focused and enthusiastic employees who give the “better milk” that all businesses want.

Recently, Bill Catlette wrote a post entitled “Leadership . . . It’s Not a Position,” which really struck home with me. I’ve read a lot about what a new leader needs to do in his or her first 100 days in the job. But in this post, Mr. Catlette goes beyond the “whats” of a new leader’s role to get at the “hows.” He says:

1. First, you manage yourself.
2. You lead others.
3. You manage the system.

If leaders reflected on these three points, I think they’d get to the “whats” of any new role a lot more easily—and to the “whats” of their existing roles also.

Manage Yourself. We have only to look at President Trump to understand the importance of managing yourself. Now, none of us can know how much President Trump manages himself, but from the outside his tweets seem undisciplined and contrary to the message of control and focus that most Americans want from their President.

As Mr. Catlette states,

“No one is going to follow you for very long or very far if you don’t have your own act together. You summon appropriate doses of optimism and humility, and keep your ego very much in check.”

This is the behavior of a leader. If this first step is not done well, then steps two and three may not get the job done.

Lead Others. Most leadership articles focus on this aspect of leadership. We are instructed that leaders should communicate the mission of the organization and how each individual’s work fits into it. They should listen with empathy to those they manage, as well as to their external stakeholders. They should encourage and persuade their followers toward a shared goal.

We’re all taught to do these things. Some of us do them better than others. But none of it matters if we—as leaders—do not model the behavior and performance needed from others in the organization.

Manage the System. Again, as leaders we are taught to examine the technology, decision rights, workflows, and other tools and processes that make up the organization we lead. We’re told to find the weak points and figure out how to improve them. We’re expected to shape the culture to get the job done—to create engaged employees.

But once more, we must recognize that we cannot shape the culture to something different than what we display ourselves.

The primary reason many leaders fail is because of cultural fit. These leaders often do not fit because they do not shape their behavior to the requirements of their role. I’m not arguing for a cookie-cutter look to all senior executives in an organization. But I am suggesting that leaders be conscious of how their behavior is viewed by those they lead and that they adapt themselves to their environment before they expect others to adapt to them.

When have you observed leaders who failed because they didn’t manage themselves first?

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Lessons from My Best Boss


The best manager I ever had passed away recently. I’ve mentioned him a couple of times in earlier posts—he was the man who told me that “time is your friend” (to which I added the codicil, “except when it isn’t”).

Among the other wise things he taught me were:

1. You can never have an hour long conversation with someone in less than an hour.

hourglass-1703330_640That statement of his taught me that you can never rush through listening to someone with a problem or a complaint. People need the time to tell their stories, and no matter how efficient you can be in the rest of what you do, listening takes time.

He had prior experience in Human Resources and a long history as a manager of large groups. He’d spent many hours listening to people’s grievances.

2. The way to solve a problem is to throw good people at it.

My manager did this many times—he took the best people he had in his division and put them on projects or in roles where important changes were needed. The projects where he set up task forces of strong contributors included productivity challenges, quality improvement teams, and staffing and reorganization issues.

In every situation, the good people he assigned found solutions, most of which worked. And even when success wasn’t immediately forthcoming, he—and we—knew we’d given it our best shot.

3. Even if you can do something better or faster than your staff, you need to delegate.

The only way that people grow is by giving them work that enables them to learn. In my prior roles, I had been an individual contributor, even when I had project management responsibility. My manager taught me that in my new position with direct and indirect supervisory authority, I needed to give my staff the opportunity to do things their own way, even if I was faster, even if it took me time to delegate and supervise, even if I could do it better.

Just as he had given me the opportunity to expand my role, and then patiently coached me, I had to do the same for my staff.

Besides, no one can do everything, and we all need to choose priorities. So for the development of my staff, for my own sake, and for the good of the organization, delegation was important.

4. You’re not a risk.

One time this manager told me that when he named me to my new position, he’d been cautioned that he was taking a risk on an unknown quantity. He told me he’d never believed that. “You weren’t a risk,” he said. “You’d done a good job in your prior role, and I had every expectation you’d succeed again.” Perhaps this is a corollary to his advice that the best way to solve a problem is to throw good people at it. He was telling me I was one of the “good people.”

That was the best compliment any manager ever gave me. I have tried to give similar compliments to people who work for me over the years.

And I will carry all these lessons with me for the rest of my life. I am only sorry this manager will no longer be coaching others in this world. He will be missed.

What’s the best lesson you ever learned from one of your managers?

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