Creating happy, productive workplaces: Contractor's Corner

By Dave Stafford

 

Have you ever walked into a company’s office or showroom and immediately detected a poisonous atmosphere or sensed an overwhelming tension? I have. It’s almost like a black cloud hangs over the area. On the other hand, there is a completely different feeling when you enter a high-energy environment where people are smiling, and you sense they’re happy, willing to help you out, friendly and looking for a way to provide great service. You feel good about being there, happy and much more relaxed.

SETTING THE STANDARD
As the head of a contract dealer, it is up to you to set the tone for your management staff, to ensure that they project the right attitude within the company and to those clients or potential clients with whom they work. 

To start with, take a hard look at your philosophy. Do you feel good about the company, its personnel and the direction it’s going? Are you friendly and outgoing, and do you make it a point to speak to everyone? Or is your management style inclined to be critical, distrustful or harsh? 

Like it or not, if you are the boss, you set the standard for the company, and it will improve or roll downhill from there. Other management can try to mitigate your shortcomings and explain your intent, but when you screw up in your actions, people notice. “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t cut it. Patience, the ability to listen and a clear, direct approach outweigh the common platitudes. 

DEALING WITH OUTLIER EMPLOYEES
Part of the appeal of a really good workplace is a blending of personalities. Yes, there were times when I wished everyone were well-organized, charming, and totally focused on company business. On the other hand, I could always count on Brad to lighten my spirits. His eye for color and design (a striped tie with a plaid shirt) was atrocious, but his ready smile, quick wit and talent for making you feel better overcame his deficiencies. I learned early on to point him in the direction of quick turn projects where his charm and people skills could close the sale, get add-on sales and turn clients into advocates. Frequently, he became the team member that dealt with clients, while a highly organized but potentially abrasive partner would manage the fine details of project delivery. A large part of Brad’s appeal was his ability to listen; a word of caution or criticism about some element of the job wasn’t taken personally. He learned from his mistakes or omissions. 

At the other end of the spectrum were Lois and Sandra. Putting them together made you wonder which one rode in on the biggest broom! Highly talented, great eye for detail and design but inclined to be so controlling and critical that others hated to work with them on projects. Lois had the edge with a high-energy level and represented the company well in presentation management, especially with designers and facility managers. Sandra was outstanding in drawing out insecure designers or facility managers and helping them make the right choice on products we featured. She would ask the tough questions that could close a sale, once landing a deposit of $140,000 because she was brave enough to ask for it. Both were high-class personnel but also high maintenance when it came to interior conflict with other company personnel. When I could get through a week without talking one or the other “off the ledge,” that was a good week.

If you have a troublemaker, deal with them quickly. You don’t have to tolerate divisive behavior or permit a backstabbing, disruptive, hostile atmosphere. Sometimes, it may be as simple as sitting down with those involved and saying, “Cut it out. We have to work together, and you will act as professionals. You don’t have to like each other but you must show respect.” It may take one conversation, a warning, suspension, or even termination to deal with some situations.

ACTIONS VERSUS WORDS
Every company should publish an employee handbook that clearly outlines its policies, programs and benefits for employees. This one step will set expectations for conduct and define actions that will not be tolerated by the company. Frequently, it is not the problem itself but how the problem is handled that causes the uproar. 

A screaming match broke out between an installer and a salesperson. It all started when Joe, the installer, left a job unfinished and made repeated promises to return, but neglected to do so. It was a small amount of work on a large job, but, as a result, Frank hadn’t been paid, and the delay had cost him a larger job. When Joe came by to pick up his paycheck, Frank made a comment about “dim-witted installers who couldn’t seem to do their work.” Joe replied with a few choice expletives, and Frank slapped him. All of this occurred in the public showroom. Frank was suspended, and Joe was brought in for remedial training. In this case, the service scheduler should have made sure the work was finished, if not by Joe then by someone else. That lapse was corrected and resulted in a service policy change.

In another case, Rick had some severe financial problems and approached me about getting a loan from the company. After listening to his sad story, I said: “I’m sorry to hear about your troubles, but the company is not a bank and cannot loan you money. However, we have a great relationship with Justin Community Bank up the street; I’ll be glad to give you the manager’s name. You can tell him I sent you up to talk about it. Fair enough?” A few weeks later, I overheard Rick telling another employee, “No, the company wouldn’t lend me any money; it’s against company policy. However, I did get a loan from their banker.”

An attitude of tolerance rather than strict compliance can lead to conflict with company policies and stimulate conflict. It is much better to state where the fences are and provide some leeway on penalties rather than allow non-compliance. 

George was a long-term employee who had developed a habit of showing up late for work. Melody frequently had to leave early to deal with family issues. Over a period of several months, opening and closing times at the showroom became a guideline rather than a standard. Hoping that the issues for both would correct themselves, Roland, their manager, let things slide. As you might expect, things did not improve. Others began to show up a few minutes late or leave early. Finally, Roland called all team members in and explained how their tardiness affected their coworkers and their clients; the new standard would be “Lombardi time” (15 minutes ahead of schedule). It took a week and two suspensions to reset their expectations.

Complaints often result from managers being too lax rather than too strict. Stress comes because there is unequal or inconsistent enforcement, so employees don’t know what to expect. Action taken may be seen as punitive, or arbitrary. Take care of the smaller problems, and you won’t have bigger ones. 

If a problem with an employee cannot be resolved, there is an art to handling termination. Prepare for the conversation, make your decision, don’t make it personal, and be clear in what you say so that there is no misunderstanding. It may be painful, with plenty of fireworks, a jolting reality for both sides, but it must be done, sooner than later.

YOUR EMPLOYEES KNOW WHO’S GETTING THE JOB DONE
“I wonder why they’re putting up with Carl. He’s always creating problems with his jobs and he seems to be frustrated and angry all the time.”

“Jeff told me he’s behind in his draw and not making sales. He’s already looking for another job; I overheard him on the phone.” 

“Mary looks good, but it seems like she’s spending more time doing her nails than on the phone with clients.” 

“I cannot believe what Harry said to one of his clients, ‘Why don’t you replace that idiot foreman of yours? Then we’ll get out there and finish.’” 

A delay in making a decision can be damaging to the manager and the company. The manager will be perceived as uncaring, indecisive or just incompetent. The excuse may be that, “I’m letting nature take its course, and it will work its way through.” Yes, but the situation is eroding all the while. Rather, a manager should take control of his situation, even if it’s an unpleasant task, “Harry, it’s time to end your association with the company; we both had high hopes, but it hasn’t worked out. Let’s pick a date for your separation.”

How does your company rate as a workplace? If you want an eye-opening perspective, go to glassdoor.com and read the reviews from company employees. This can be illuminating, both if you are being rated and if you plan to do business with a rated company.

Perhaps the least effective way for a boss to glean employee feedback is to pull them into their office and ask their opinions. They won’t get the unvarnished truth. It’s the same with feedback through a written questionnaire or a website, unless it’s done off premises through a non-company computer using something like Survey Monkey. Employees are paranoid that management will figure out which comments came from them.

One way to get quality feedback is to use an outside human resources (HR) firm. Have them do indepth interviews and provide company management with feedback. Yes, management can (and should) help the HR firm develop the questions, and all team members should be required to sit for their individual interview. The HR pro may schedule interviews off premises or after business hours.

Management may introduce this concept with a statement along the lines of, “We are looking for ways to improve our company through feedback from our most valuable asset, our employees. We care what you think, so we want you to participate by giving our HR professional your opinion of how we’re doing and where we can do a better job. All information provided is confidential and not attributed to you personally; [HR, Inc.] develops a composite rating report based upon employee answers and comments.”

In the final analysis, the boss is responsible for workplace productivity. Everyone would like to know the boss’ vision of where the company is going. It is up to them to figure that out and enthusiastically share it. That, coupled with good human relations, is the secret to a happy workplace.

Copyright 2013 Floor Focus



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