Ask Wendy

Ask Wendy: Hunters vs Gatherers

Q: I manage two very talented employees. They each bring different things to the table, and the team has a nice skill balance. One is a vegetarian and the other is a hunter. Hunter isn’t pinning up pictures, but there is some hunting discussion going on. Veggie asked me, as their manager, to talk to Hunter about it. 

Should a manager get involved in these sorts of “lite” workplace clashes or should they encourage the workers to work it out?

Rather than should, let’s talk about when manager involvement makes sense. You want to stay in the space of coaching your team, rather than solving their problems. So, how to best do this?

One of my favorite coaching questions is “What have you already tried?” Asking Veggie what she has already tried is a great way to signal that you won’t taking on solving her problem, yet will help her find a solution herself.

Let’s imagine Veggie says she hasn’t done anything. It’s fair to ask her to take a run at this on her own first, and let her know that if it doesn’t work, you’ll stay involved. You can let her know you do understand this is an emotional situation. Ask what she’d like to see change. Is it zero mention of hunting? Less explicit discussions? Your role at this point is to help Veggie articulate her desired outcome.

If she says her goal is have Hunter pretend he doesn’t hunt, that is an extreme expectation you will need to help manage.  One way to frame that is to ask her to imagine she’s in Hunter’s shoes. Is she talking about kale constantly? Do their interactions have a joking tone, where Hunter might be caught off-guard with learning there is a problem at all? Has he only mentioned hunting a few times, and in the context of a once-in-a-lifetime hunting weekend? You’re preparing her to succeed as she leads the conversation with Hunter.

You may also need to remind her that no one is going to change anyone’s viewpoints in this scenario. The goal is create a work environment where everyone is comfortable – not to reach an agreement on which lifestyle choice is “best”.

After Veggie and Hunter have a conversation, it is your role to ask follow-up questions of Veggie. How did it go? Is she seeing a change from Hunter? If she’s not, you’ll need to determine if her request wasn’t clear, reasonable or if he just refuses to adjust.

My advice is now close to morphing into a choose-your-own adventure scenario! As a manager, your role is to coach and encourage your team to solve problems, not to solve the problems. You are trying to set up a team that only brings you ‘Problems’ with a capital P. Do this enough times and your team will know to come to you when they need advice and coaching, rather than bringing you more work to do.

Ask Wendy

Ask Wendy: Finding a Mentor

A recent text from a close friend:
Wendy! Could use some advice from my HR/professional development friend. 😉 Any suggestions on how you ask someone to be your mentor?

So, I am conflicted about “formal” mentoring. I know this can be heresy in the HR world…Clutch your pearls now!

If you’re thinking about asking someone to be your mentor, it’s likely you already have a relationship. If you don’t, you need to start and build a relationship, even if as a casual acquaintance. Once there’s a bit of a relationship in place, you can email or start up a conversation along the lines of:

“I’ve always thought of you as a mentor, and would appreciate your perspective on XYZ right now.”

Once you’ve had that exchange, and shared your gratitude for her perspective, you can ask if she’d be comfortable with you keeping her your list of people to reach out to for similar coaching or advice in the future.

What you’re doing is asking for the mentoring AFTER it’s already happening, which means you’ve let the mentor experience what you’re expecting. “Being a mentor” can feel big, and like another commitment or obligation. Asking after you’ve shown that it won’t take up too much of their time, and will be easy, it’s more likely you’ll get a yes for an ongoing mentoring relationship.

Here is the key to successful mentoring: YOU have to give something back to your mentor. It’s not a one-way street. Any relationship has to be mutually beneficial, and mentoring is not an exception. This can come through in many different ways: she gets (some) credit for your brilliance at work, or early information on what’s happening in other parts of your industry or organization. It could be great book recommendations, or helping her stay plugged in to the latest technology advancements applicable to your work.

Mentees have to give as well as take. 





Ask Wendy

When are rules flexible?

Q: How do you balance being the kind of manager you “want” to be (trusting, hands-off, same rules apply to all) when one team member clearly needs more boundaries?
A specific example: I truly think working from home is a positive benefit offered by my company. I personally like it, and I like to give my team flexibility to “show up” when, where and how they are needed. What do you do when one team member takes advantage of that — when you don’t trust they are actually working when they are “working” from home and aren’t making good decisions when deciding where to work? 
A: Let’s start with your specific example, because teleworking is the most common situation I see a manger suddenly bringing down the policy hammer when things aren’t going to plan. If we reframe working from home not as a benefit but a privilege, then not coming into the office becomes something an employee needs to earn.
Next, you have to ask if you’ve clearly told your team how to earn the ability to work remotely? It’s likely you need to feel confident in their work and responsiveness before any scheduling flexibility is considered – a reasonable expectation.  If someone already has a performance issue, resolve it before before considering a flexible work arrangement.
Once job performance isn’t the issue, make sure you’ve shared your expectations for when your team isn’t in the office. Do you expect your team to reply to your emails within minutes? Have a set up for video conferences where you can’t see their kitchen sink? Forward their office number to a landline? Whatever it may be, these are the rules to share with the entire team – they are the same for everyone. A refresher at a team meeting is good practice overall – a reminder even to those without a problem currently that privileges have to be earned.
Next, I recommend a bit of reflection to check yourself: are your standards higher when someone is home rather at the office? Part of the reason I like to work from home is no one can stop by desk, so I get long uninterrupted stretches of work. Expecting immediate responses just because you can’t see someone can make the productivity benefits of being home evaporate.
Whew. All that said, then ask why you don’t trust the employee in your current scenario? Is work product overall an issue? Taking calls from pool-side? Now you can address specific behaviors that don’t match your expectations. This is the actual act of managing – taking a vague workplace policy, usually designed to allow for ‘manager discretion’, and being explicit on how you expect things to work for your team. Establishing a solid foundation of expectations makes addressing individual issues much easier.
Ask Wendy

Venting vs Bitching: The Difference Matters

Q: What is the best way to approach employees who say unkind things about other employees or customers and are overheard doing so? They are usually blowing off a little steam after a frustrating conversation, they may not know they can be heard, and the things they are saying aren’t racist or sexist, just generally not nice.
A: Well, everyone needs to vent a little at work! We all get frustrated with minor annoyances in the workplace and blowing off a little steam is to be expected. However, venting can turn to bitching very quickly – and makes an unpleasant working environment when it happens constantly.
How to spot the difference?
  • Venting is a quick, event-driven emotional response, typically followed up with the vent-er finding a solution or way forward.
  • Bitching is the same topic repeatedly addressed and doesn’t include anything remotely looking like “and here’s what I am going to do about it” wrap-up. It starts as venting, but tends to never turn to trying to address what’s not working.

An important note: In either case, if the topic is another employee, it’s time to take a stand. A workplace filled with gossip and side-conversations is toxic. Reciprocity is a powerful reminder in these cases. A simple statement such as “I wouldn’t sit by while others talked about you this way, so I am going to do the same for the whole team” is a reminder that you won’t let the team pull itself apart from the inside. It is fair for someone to ask for help in working through something with a peer – that is coaching. It’s a fine line, but the nuance is if there’s a productive change in behavior at the end of a conversation rather than repeated complaining.

So, are you overhearing venting or bitching?

Ignore venting – as long as your customers can’t hear it. Venting can actually be helpful in identifying the pain points of your coworkers and employees. Shutting down all venting means you’re not listening to all aspects of the work experience. And, if you’re not listening, it’s harder to lead or manage a team.

Address bitching right away:

  1. Who can overhear it? Again, if it’s customers shut it down immediately with a quick “Now isn’t the time or place” comment. Sometimes humor can work, too: a “We can hear you!” is a gentle reminder that not everything needs known what someone is feeling in the moment.
  2. Is it the same endless complaint? Ask the complainer what they’ve done to try to fix whatever is annoying. A few rounds of “I’ve heard you get frustrated about this before – how are you making sure it doesn’t happen again?” goes a long way.

And if you need a laugh after these direct conversations with your team, there’s a great The Mindy Project episode that covers the idea that we all need to complain a little about work: Season 4, Episode 20: The Best of the Best.

Ask Wendy

Child-bearer of Bad News?

Q: When is it appropriate to tell a potential employer you’re pregnant when applying for a job? And to whom: the recruiter, the hiring manager… or just to HR after you start?

A: Before jumping into an ideal disclosure strategy, remember you’re not obligated to say anything. I don’t advocate this approach and recommend considering the interview process as the start of a new professional relationship. The question is when to establish a deeper level trust with your potential manager and new organization.

I’m glad you brought up the recruiter! Building a strong rapport with your recruiter is key to understanding where you are in the hiring process, the culture of the organization and the needs of the hiring manager. A good recruiter will let you know when you’re a finalist.

Tell the hiring manager once you know you’re a finalist, following up with your recruiter. If you’re far enough along and had an in-person interview, it may be an unspoken observation and now is the time to put all your cards on the table. In both cases, let the manager know if you’ve planned for past maternity leaves and how you set your peers up to be successful during your absence. If this is your first (congrats!), ask what the manager’s expectations would be, so you can be sure to work to surpass expectations from day one.

Three additional considerations:
1.) Throughout the interview process, the less information not related to the actual job a hiring manager has, the more likely it is that the hiring decision will be made on qualifications and experience. I’ve worked with managers in the past who didn’t want to know details, worried that a decision not to move forward with a particular candidate could expose them to perceptions of discrimination.

2.) If a company wouldn’t hire you because you’re expecting, why work there? Does the organization support working parents, what kind of advancement would be available, and would it be an ongoing struggle to find the elusive work/life balance?

3) And, once you’re in the job, planning for your leave, I strongly recommend also planning for your return back to work. Most working moms I’ve talked to were disappointed in their team’s planning, and getting their work back. Take matters into your hands and build out a counter-plan for your transition back to work, too.

Ask Wendy

avoiding the slurpy tea drinker

Q: What do you do when a colleague’s habits are distracting/terrible? I have a new colleague in our open office environment who is a terrible tea slurper, and it’s distracting all of us and driving us crazy every morning. It’s gotten to the point where I’m strategically scheduling meetings/time out of the office to avoid this morning routine.

Atl;dr: You need to talk to you coworker. Immediately.

Using “us” and “avoid” says two things: 1) the annoying tea slurping habit is now a topic of office chatter and 2) it’s impacting your colleague’s ability to be effective. Imagine if you had some small, fixable habit others talked about or avoided – and then you realized you’d been doing it for months. It’s likely you’d wish someone had told you sooner.

So how do you approach this conversation? In a one-on-one casual setting and acknowledging it’s a little uncomfortable. “Hey, Joe? I know this may be a little uncomfortable. I can hear you drinking your tea and find it distracting. I thought you’d want to know – since I’d want to know if I was doing anything distracting, too.” And don’t bring it up again. You’ve raised this issue – what your coworker does with it is out of your hands.

This approach works if it’s something somewhat easy to fix: wearing too much perfume and taking conference calls on speaker phone are two situations that I hear of often. And then stop talking about it with others – consider it addressed.