The Lessons of a Dog

Much attention has been given to a story in the Denver area about a newscaster who was bitten by a dog she was showcasing during the newscast.  Some history: this dog, a large 83 pound Mastiff had fallen into a freezing reservoir the day before and had been dramatically rescued.  He does have an owner and had broken free from his yard that morning.  He has no history of aggressive behavior and had just met the reporter.  Now you may be asking, why is this blogger writing about a dog on a HR blog?  Because this dog could teach some serious lessons to managers and HR Professionals alike.

The animal behaviorist who was called in to look at the tape of the show said the dog was showing signs of distress.  He was panting excessively, his ears were back, and he was trying to get away but kept being pulled back.  The news reporter was holding his face and put her face in his…and so he bit.  The humans on the scene did not read the signs of a dog in trouble.  So too managers often don’t read the signs given by their employees.  I can’t tell you how many times I have dealt with employee relations issues that come about because an employee “cracks” or “couldn’t take it anymore”.  These employees show signs of distress.  So, a few things to look for:

  • Behavior Changes:  Most humans are creatures of habit.  A good manager will begin to know the habits of their employees – their attention to their schedules, to detail, how they handle being given criticism.  If you notice changes in any behavior pattern something is up.
  • Changes in Appearance: Ok, we all go through “phases” where we might try something new with our look but if these changes are dramatic it probably is indicating we have something happening.  This is also true if we suddenly don’t seem to care about our appearance.  Lack of grooming is almost a tell tale sign that something has changed.
  • The subtle gestures – you know them and probably associate them with your teenager.  Eye rolls, “whatevers” ignoring you, doing the exact opposite of what is being asked.  Seem rebellious?  It is!
  • Who your employees hang out with – yep, just like high school we tend to “clique” and just like high school many are very influenced by the leaders of the cliques so know who they are.
  • Basic Performance: If I used to knock it out of the ballpark and now seem to not even care who is pitching, you might want to chat.
There are many other signs but these are a few.  So, if an employee is giving off these signs what do you do as a manager?  Don’t be afraid of actual conversation.  Many managers don’t know where to begin with addressing these issues and so often don’t until they have become areas for formal corrective action.  If you don’t know how to have these conversations, your HR Professional should be able to give you some guidance.  My advise always has been to be, as they say, straight up.  I am not big on sugar coating but I do like conversations to show respect and empathy.  Managers should also know what benefits are offered by their companies – EAP programs especially are a great way to get an employee help if they have something going on outside of the company.  Be ready with an action plan – training or retraining, coming up with how communication can/should/will happen, putting a definitive time frame on the plan, and making sure employees are crystal clear about expectations are always points a manager should have in their back pockets.
If managers don’t pay attention to the warning signs given by their employees they too will get bit, at least figuratively.  And so, typical HR brain working, I thought of them when watching the news about the dog and the reporter.

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