We Don’t Know – What We Don’t Know

We are not always aware.

As Leaders and Human Resources Professionals, we don’t always understand what is happening in the day-to-day lives of our employees. Our expectation is that the policies we have in place should be followed. But what I have found in the day-to-day activities of workers is that it isn’t always true.

This morning, I was reading an article about the Garnett News Company and journalists discussing how often they worked overtime without being paid. The journalist said it was an expectation of editors, senior reporters, and managers, part of paying your dues. One Senior Reporter said, “You pay your dues; that is how you get ahead.”

However, the Gannett spokesperson said, “We strive to provide meaningful opportunities and fair compensation in a very challenging time for our industry, and we strongly disagree that there is a culture of exploitation. Quite the contrary, we respect the law and have extensive policies, procedures, and training to ensure compliance with the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) and other workplace laws and regulations.”

Both of these things can be true. Leaders can respect the laws and have extensive policies. And employees can be forced to work overtime without pay.

I know it shouldn’t happen, but it does.

And it lies with the middle managers, in this case, the editors, senior reporters, and newsroom managers. And the employees.

In the article I read, many of the employees said they felt obligated to complete the story, talk to family members of the victims, or just get it done.

It doesn’t matter; the Fair Labor Standards Act clearly states that if a non-exempt employee works on behalf of the organization, they need to be paid. It is one topic I drill home to all the attendees of my workshops because it is where a lot of organizations get in trouble.

But it isn’t the only topic, where what the Senior Leaders think is happening and what is happening on the ground. In another incident, a manufacturer in Ithaca, NY had to pay $93,000 in monetary relief and report any future harassment allegations directly to the EEOC because a middle manager was harassing staff based on race, sex, and national origin.

Many of the stories we tell on this podcast are because a middle manager made a bad decision. In a lot of those cases, it is because they were not well informed.

And who is responsible for informing them, it is the leadership and the HR Professionals. Having a policy in your employee handbook will give you some cover in legal proceedings until an attorney discusses with the employees how much training they have had around this topic.

In January, we released one of the hardest podcasts; we had to record where an employee died because the general manager of a mill didn’t take the OSHA violations seriously enough. Unfortunately, last week I read another story, where an employee died because managers didn’t follow OSHA recommendations.

A Vinyl tile manufacturing company in Ohio faced a similar situation where OSHA cited them over eight times, and they continued to not make the necessary changes and had a 7th worker in five years suffer severe injuries.

When you talk to senior leadership and HR, they will tell you we have policies in place; our expectation is that those policies are followed. I call Bullshit.

The problem is that senior leadership and HR are not aware of how these policies are being followed, AND in the case of senior leadership, they are placing more emphasis on profits, creating a culture of cost-cutting that leads to poor management decisions.

I know this because I have been on both sides of the coin. I have been an employee working for a manufacturing company where getting products out the door was the number one driving force. And I have been a leader with over 350 employees. No matter how I thought things were being done, I knew supervisors and managers were taking shortcuts to meet the organizational expectations.

How do we correct this?

As I said earlier, we must train our supervisors and managers in employment law. We cannot expect them to be promoted and miraculously understand employment law. One of my favorite workshops that Chuck Simikian and I deliver to organizations around the country is Employment Law for Managers. We customize the workshop based on the company’s employee handbook and teach the managers the connection between employment law and their role within the company.

It works; we have seen reductions in overtime issues, discrimination, harassment claims, and break and leave time violations go down.

It isn’t the only thing we should do as leaders and HR professionals; we also must work on improving the organization’s culture.

This is hard.

An organizational culture is how it feels to work there and is based on the relationship individuals have with one another. No edict from on high is going to change the organizational culture. A good company culture will help managers and employees make better decisions at work.

For instance, I worked at a small company where one of our values was to go the extra mile for our customers. I remember once that a customer called and hadn’t gotten the expected delivery they needed for the weekend. One of the managers took it upon themselves to drive the product to the customer, even though it was two hours out of their way.

What can we do to build a culture that works?

First, I recommend you take time to assess what the culture is like right now. What is good about the culture, the things you want to keep? And what is bad about the culture, the things you want to eliminate?

Second, I would survey the employees and ask them what they like and don’t like about the culture. Ask detailed questions and ask open-ended questions to get specific examples of what is going well and what is going wrong.

Be prepared, as the employees will provide feedback that may be hard to read. This is good. When you only get good feedback, this means that either you are an amazing company, or more likely, the employees are afraid of rocking the boat.

Culture is typically based on values. Our personal values shape our relationships at work and, therefore, shape our company culture. Defining values is a great way to start building the culture you want. But it is not enough to have values; you must define to the employee how those values will guide their behaviors.

For instance, if one of your company values is respect for the individual, a behavior might be actively listening to all voices in a meeting. Respect, as a value, could also mean recognizing an employee’s contribution to the team.  

It is hard work, and it takes time, but it starts an opening conversation, which leads to a change in the culture because we are emphasizing the importance of those particular values.

Once the values are in place, they must be consistently enforced by the full management team through repetition, rewarding those who exhibit the values and reminding those who do not.

Culture building takes time, and there are many forces pushing against it, but with leadership and consistent effort, culture can change.

I will see one of the strongest influences the HR team can have is through their selection and onboarding process. Hiring for attitude and teaching new employees the values will help move the cultural needle.

I started this article out with a comment: if we don’t know, we don’t know. My final recommendation is for Leaders and HR professionals to step away from their workplace and go meet the employees where they are. I am a big champion of walking about, seeing workers do their work, and talking to them in their environment. You will be amazed at what you can learn.

John Thalheimer

CEO Partner and Leadership Coach at the Team at HR Stories

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