Are You Approachable?


Are You Approachable?

In January, I wrote about having a conversational relationship with your employees.  Since then, I have been part of two discussions which illustrated just how important this is.  In that article, I primarily discussed HR’s need to develop a conversational relationship with their employees, however, it is just as important that management teams also develop a conversational relationship with employees.

The first conversation I want to share highlights how unapproachable our management teams can be. The person I was speaking with was a gentleman in a management position. Our discussion was centered on conducting performance reviews and he shared with me a story of a review he had conducted for an employee he referred to as a “young woman”.  After he had gone through her entire performance review, he asked for her feedback. It was at this time that she told him that he came across to her as being unfriendly and that she did not feel as if she could come to him with her problems.

His demeanor had made him unapproachable.  

Turns out, that was intended.  But why?

When I asked him how he responded, he said he told her that if he seemed unfriendly, he was fine with that.  He went on to say, “I don’t go to work to make friends and hear about your problems. We come here to work, I told her, leave your problems at home.”  She burst into tears right there in his office.  I can’t say I blame her either, I probably would have struggled not to do the same.

What he failed to realize was that in making himself unapproachable, he wasn’t just keeping his employees from sharing personal issues with him, he was discouraging them from coming to him with any issues, even work related ones.  If you aren’t approachable, your employees won’t come to you if there is friction with another employee, or a customer. They won’t come to you and ask for help when they need it or ask questions they don’t know the answer to. And that is detrimental to the success of a team, a department, and a company.

I explained to him that asking his employees about their weekend or their personal lives could help him build a stronger more effective team.  I suggested that it was possible set certain boundaries, such as not being asked advice about a personal issue or not sharing detailed rehashings of conversations with family or friends, and still be friendly with his staff.  And I also reminded him that most of us probably spend more time at work with our coworkers than with anyone else in our lives. It’s only natural that we bring part of personal lives to work and seek to be friendly with our coworkers, and yes, even our bosses.

And this leads me to the second conversation.

In this conversation a person shared that when they had finally taken an issue to their HR department they were asked, “Why didn’t you come to us sooner?”

Why indeed?

As I’ve said, failing to make ourselves approachable and developing a conversational relationship with our employees means they don’t feel that they can bring issues to us.  I’m not going to share this person’s answer, but rather, several common answers.

Because, how could you not already know?

Let’s face it, some of our offices and companies have allowed toxic behaviors to continue until they are an implicit part of the culture.  It becomes normal for certain problematic behaviors to occur openly and frequently. To the point where a reasonable employee would assume that HR must know that it going on.  But if we never leave our offices and engage our employees in person or talk with them about their experiences, how are we going to know  that there are problematic and toxic behaviors in our workplaces?  It’s not like the people who engage in problematic behaviors are going to do so with us, they know who we are and are going to be on their best behavior around us.

We have to make time to get out of our individual offices and and actually talk with our employees. That’s the only way we are going to know and understand what’s going on in the company and it’s how we make our employees feel comfortable coming to us when something does happen.

Because, I didn’t think you’d actually do anything before.

When little problematic behaviors and issues are routinely swept under the rug or dismissed, your employees will stop coming to you with them. Likewise, they will not come to you about a manager who they know has been reported to HR in the past and witnessed them come through the investigation without reprimand.  And if the person who filed the complaint was transferred, terminated, or resigned shortly thereafter, people will be even less likely to come to you, because they will be afraid of what will happen to them if they do.

Obviously, we can’t discuss personnel issues with others, and we can’t discipline someone without cause.  But we can make sure that we provide training to everyone on the topics of concern and we can remain engaged after we conclude our investigations.  Our job doesn’t end when the issue is “Resolved”. It’s only just begun. We need to be seen by the employees afterward. We need to check in on how things are going.  If we aren’t paying attention and being proactive, the problematic behaviors are likely to recur.

I went to my supervisor and was told I was being overly sensitive or to toughen up.

Yes, this happens.  A lot.

How many of our employee handbooks recommend reporting issues to HR or a supervisor?  Have our management teams been properly trained on how to handle, address, or report minor problematic behaviors and incidents?  Do they feel comfortable coming to HR to discuss these issues?

Again, if we have made ourselves unapproachable, people will not come to us.  Not our management teams and definitely not our employees.

So, are you approachable?

Are your HR Department and management teams approachable?

If not or if your not sure, maybe it’s time to have a conversation about how to change that.

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