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.

Tuna Fish

One of the greatest lessons I learned in HR started with a can of tuna fish.

I had an employee come to see me once in absolute hysteria.  While I was trying to calm her down I was calculating in my mind how I could take care of her, call 911, and keep the office from panic.  All of this was going through my mind because obviously something horrible had happened to her.  I was thinking – was she raped? attacked? did she just lose someone?  There had to be something.

Twenty minutes after she entered my office and I had mapped out my plan she was calm enough to tell me what happened…….

” My co-worker” she sobbed “opened a can of tuna fish at her desk and she knows” more sobbing ” that I hate the smell of tuna fish”.

I was floored and it honestly did take me a minute to composed myself. A can of tuna fish? Seriously??

I caught my breath…and then said directly that there had to be more than a can of tuna fish to elicit the reaction she was showing.  It took about another twenty minutes and she revealed that she was in an abusive marriage and that she had caught her husband sexually abusing her ten year old daughter the night before.  We called the appropriate authorities and I set her up with a victims advocate through our EAP.  All totaled, the situation did take up an entire afternoon.

Two things came from that can of tuna fish.  One, never assume you know what is going on with an employee or take at face value their reactions – trust your gut.  And two, we in HR walk a very fine line between helping and getting too involved.  Human Resources is a department where you hear the worst of the worst with what is happening with the employees of a company.  I have known of deaths, cancers, abuse, addictions, abandonments, evictions, you name it.  It is a natural reaction, in most of us, to want to help.  For the HR professional, however, how you help and how involved you get in situations can be tricky.  For most of us we rely on our company’s benefits, like the EAP, Short Term Disability or FMLA as ways to provide assistance.

In the end, one of the greatest things we can provide is compassion and empathy.  We do keep some professional distance or we wouldn’t survive this profession.  We should also, though, do our due diligence to ensure that we are providing the services to help our employees balance the many demands of the work place and all that life itself presents.

Sometimes tuna fish is simply tuna fish….other times, it may be the door that opens into something much more.

Human Resources: Resolutions or Roadblocks?

My first job out of my undergraduate program was in HR.  The market had crashed and I was fortunate to get a job as a temp in an established HR department.  I asked my boss at the time exactly what it was that HR did and she said “we solve employee problems for the business”.  So, with that, I thought of my job as one of problem resolution.  When I got back into HR after being in the mental health field, I walked into a room of business leaders and one said – “here comes Hard Roadblocks”.  So which one are we?  Problem solvers or roadblocks?  I think the answer, actually, is both.

What an HR department is to a company depends on two things. How the business utilizes the department and the philosophy of the HR professionals themselves.  Some companies still see HR as administrative “personnel” where all that is done is the necessary paperwork for new hires, benefits and payroll.  On the other end of the spectrum are the companies that see HR as strategic partners, asking for input and the human perspective on many business initiatives.  Most departments fall somewhere inbetween – providing the necessary administrative input while being asked to the proverbial table for at least some brainstorming sessions.

What largely determines how HR is perceived in the company is the HR Professionals themselves.  In all honesty, I don’t always like my peers in this industry.  Some are way too friendly, wanting to be friends with everyone and make people feel good (tell tale sign are those that say they are in this business because they like people).  Others seem to think this profession is like a police department, setting down rules and enforcing them.  Unfortunately, many also don’t understand business so, though creative, they design programs and try to roll out policies that have no relationship with the business or their needs.  These approaches make being in HR a constant fight to gain the trust and respect of both the business leaders and the employees.  And these approaches are why we are often seen as “roadblocks”.

For me, Human Resources needs to be one of the most neutral places within the company.  We need to be keenly aware of business and the bottom line and we need to be patient and understanding, while still being consistent, with employees.  This is not an easy position to hold.  Too often, management thinks you work for them and are often offended when you support the employee perspective.  Or employees feel you are their advocates and so often do not understand or “will never go” to HR if you enforce a policy that they may find unfair.  One area I fight this regularly is terminations – I will not sit in on one unless it is my department that is the cause.  Managers want me to deliver the difficult news but I refuse feeling it vitally important for me to keep my neutrality.  I ensure that due dilligence has been done and that the termination is justified but that is as far as I will go and this often has me at odds with leadership.

So back to the question – HR is both.  We are the consistency keepers, making sure there are processes and policies to follow which often is perceived as roadblocks for business leaders trying to push something (or someone) trough.  We also should be creative thinkers coming up with ways to resolve issues and bring results that are good for employee and business alike.  Harmounious Resolutions…Hard Roadblocks…Human Resources