March 31, 2009

How to handle sensitive issues in the workplace

A blog post about telling someone they need to look more professional at work got me thinking about the best way to handle sensitive issues in the workplace. A while back there was a company that got lots of media coverage about a service they provided. You called them if you had a workmate or friend with body odour, bad breath or dandruff and they would anonymously call the person and tell them. I’m not sure if the service ever took off or not, but there is probably still such services around.

I think I’d prefer someone to just tell me rather than hire an anon service. I suppose if an anon service called me I’d be paranoid that there was a group of 100 people that were horrified about my problem and got together to hire the service.

An example of a sensitive issue not handled well I’ve seen is that of an untidy, unpolished business owner telling a staff member that they desperately need a haircut. They were instructed to get one ASAP “because they are making the place look scruffy”. The staff member was really mad because this woman’s appearance was very scruffy and un-manicured. If she was well dressed and presented, he figured he would have got a haircut no problem and not been offended and annoyed. Instead it made his blood boil that she had the nerve to criticise his appearance when hers was so much more undesirable. (FYI his hair wasn’t the long messy look guys do these days – it was a normal ‘man cut’ that was obviously half a centimetre too long for her liking).

When I worked for a bank, there was a very regular customer whose body odour was so intense it smelt like pizza and would linger for hours after she left. It was truly, truly eye watering sitting with her. I can’t imagine how it could be addressed if she had of worked with us. It was obviously something medical and I don’t know if anything could have been done about it anyway.

Perhaps you have a problem you’ve identified with a staff member (or another member of the team brought it to your attention) that you need to address. If it’s a personal thing, you need to tread carefully. Plenty of bosses in this position before you have tried so hard to be tactful but instead really put their foot in it! Maybe make google your friend – it may offer some advice. Also, perhaps when mentioning the issue do so very casually.

I think this topic needs further exploration. Please share any experience you have of handling sensitive issues in the workplace – done well, done badly or just ignored. What tactics do you think bosses in this position should use?

March 27, 2009

Can a magic chair solve your workplace problems?

I can’t sing my “listen to your staff” song any louder if I tried, so lucky for me someone else has joined in. I’ve always said that it doesn’t really matter what method you choose to listen to your staff so long as you just make sure you do it!

A communications worker in a Fortune 500 company is changing the way it communicates with employees and customers…simply by using a chair. Her idea came up against opposition at first, but she eventually won over management. So she trotted off to the middle of the corporate campus dragging along two chairs. She put up a sign that had a topic for the day on it, then sat and waited. Soon people starting sitting to talk. She now has lines form as people wait their turn to have a say. You can read about this initiative in more detail here.

The reason this case is so interesting is because it could be considered old fashioned – two people, two chairs and pure communication. No intranets or technology or fancy forms. I have written many pieces about how our workplaces need to be modernized, move with the times and continually learn and embrace new technologies. But there are some things that need to stay ‘real’ and ‘pure’. The problem with communication was not that it got swept away with new technology and lost, but that it just stopped happening – bosses forgot they had ears and how to use them.

Another example of plain and simple talking to staff is the team building day. Some people cringe when they hear that term – they brace themselves for wearing blindfolds and falling back into the arms of team mates. They need to no longer because simple ‘talking team days’ can have a much bigger impact. Staff will probably prepare themselves for being talked at about what they should be focusing on and what they need to achieve. But as a staff member explains in this blog post senior managers talking openly and honestly to employees made a normally cringe worthy day an eye opening one instead.

It can be concluded that there is no need for fancy team days - just talk instead! Communication is so important to culture and business success. Unluckily for it though, it can sometimes wear the blame for things it shouldn’t. “It’s a communication problem” can cover a multitude of sins. Often with probing it turns out it wasn’t a communication problem at all. Make sure if you label something a communication problem, it really is. Probe a bit deeper and you should receive clarity about where the real problem lies.

March 24, 2009

Why you need a ‘banned customer’ list

I am a big fan of ‘banned customer lists’. Mainly because I believe staff should be put before customers. If your staff have customers that are disrespectful and more trouble than they are worth they should be banned. Free your staff up to deal with customers that do act like decent human beings. Some people have a problem with the concept of banning customers – they think it will kill their business. I’d say the opposite is true. If you ban nasty customers, not only to your nice customers benefit by not having to see them have tantrums in your store or office your staff will have more positive energy to share with those that really deserve it. Having customers is just like any other relationship – if it becomes abusive, end it. If you decide to just put up with the abuse, you are saying “it is ok for you to treat me like this”. Lots of businesses have ‘banned customer’ lists – they are people that are not worth the trouble, and are not welcome as customers. It is an awesome way to keep your staff protected and #1.

You should be in business to serve great people – not everyone and anyone who shows interest in your product. My favourite example of a banned customer is this story (yes I’ve told it a thousand times!):
Then CEO of Continental Airlines Gordon Bethune was chatting to staff. He left them so they could finish getting ready for the flight. As he was taking his seat on the plane he saw a passenger making a scene. The passenger had seen empty seats in first class and wondered why (with his elite member card) he wasn’t upgraded. The flight attendant said she'd contact a gate attendant to see what they could do. Before she could do that, the passenger started swearing and yelling at her. Gordon approached and said to the man "can I help somehow?"
The passenger said "who the **** are you"
Gordon responded "I’m the CEO of this company. May I see your ticket sir?"
The passenger handed it over to him. Gordon saw the price, pulled some notes from his pocket and handed him the cash, ripped the ticket then said "now, you get the **** off my airplane” the flight attendant could hardly keep a straight face. This story was circulated by email and fast became well loved. Gordon had a reputation as a leader who really respected his people. He gave out a great message to the team that day – he will back them, and protect them no matter what. The customers also saw that there was no room on the plane for a**holes (I imagine they applauded). Gordon would not tolerate his staff being disrespected. An example in a different company is written about in this blog post. The company added a new item to their terms of service that says “Are you cranky? This may not be the company for you." They did so because they didn’t want to expose the talented staff they’d worked so hard to find to rude people.

This attitude is quite different from businesses that always put customers first “the customer is always right” and encourage staff to do whatever it takes to please them…no matter what. There are some customers that are just not worth it.

Don’t be afraid of creating boundaries in your business. Your customers have expectations about you (what you will provide and by when) and so you should have expectations of them also (their behaviour and attitude). The more places that refuse to tolerate bad customer behaviour, the more polite our society will HAVE to become. Tantrums no longer tolerated! Your staff will have more energy to put into lovely customers that are worth going the extra mile for – they won’t be drained by tense customer interactions.

March 20, 2009

What colour is your workplace environment?

The red zone/green zone idea is a simple way to understand the ‘vibe’ and culture of a workplace. Even just reading the red zone characteristics is enough to you’re your stomach churn – it’s so sad and soul destroying. The green zone is awesome though. They are like two different people – the red person is immature with zero self esteem, and the green person is secure and mature. Here are the descriptions:

Red zone environment:

Low trust and high suspicion
High blame
Risk avoidance
Cheating and greed
Threats and fear
Guardedness and withholding info (see ‘Audit your secrets’)
Denial (see ‘Don’t avoid the yuck’)
Sarcasm (which can be a form of bullying)
Tendency for people to hide mistakes

Green zone environment:
High trust
Friendship and laughter
Optimism and excitement
Broad perspectives
Shared vision
Open to feedback
Risk taking
Tendency to learn from mistakes
Facing difficult truths
Sense of contribution
Ethical behaviour
Friendly competition
Mutual support

It is pretty obvious what kind of environment you should be building in your workplace. Perhaps the red zone characteristics are hard to pinpoint as they may be a bit more subtle than the blunt words above – so think very carefully. Identify any behaviours, attitudes, actions or ‘norms’ within your workplace that fit any of the things on these lists. Give your staff a copy of the lists and ask them to do the same. In a green zone people can thrive, they will be healthier in body and mind and capable of achieving higher levels of success. Any red zone behaviours (no matter how well hidden) need to be weeded out honestly and addressed – go green instead.

March 17, 2009

The ‘Boss Exam’ - will you pass?

Questions to ask yourself when getting real about whether or not you are a fantastic boss.

Do you willingly and proactively lend a hand during busy or stressful periods without hesitation or drama?
Do you display any form of favoritism among individuals or teams?
Do you give regular and sincere verbal recognition?
Are you a genius at spotting things that deserve verbal recognition?
Do you back your staff and their decisions no matter what?
Do you show them how much you value them with rewards when they deserve a special thank you?
Are you more likely to do a messy/dirty job yourself or delegate it to someone else?
Are you totally free of B*llsh*t?
Do you have a positive contagious energy that brings fun to the workplace?
Do you always share credit with the team?
Are you understanding about the need to do some personal tasks during work time?
Are you willing to explore flexible options (i.e. hours, R+R, benefits, study) without freaking out and being rigid?
Do you make decisions with confidence and vision (without ‘dilly dallying’)?
Do you keep everyone constantly in the know about 'what’s going on around here'?
Do you keep everyone constantly informed about mission, strategy and goals?
Do you make efforts to fully utilize the skills each individual has accumulated over their lifetime?
Are you great at keeping the vision alive in a memorable way daily?
Have you got a fine tuned personal understanding of what leadership and management is and requires?
Are all meetings on task and worthwhile?
Do you have a servant’s heart (knowing that the boss is there to serve the staff not vice versa)?
Are you doing all you can to break 'stress habits' and not just accepting it as the 'norm' of how things are done in your work/industry?
Do you sweat the small stuff and nip tension in the bud?
Do you have zero tolerance for senseless moaning and complaining (and encourage powerful solutions thinking instead)?
Are you guilty of grounding workers (withholding praise for fear they will get too big for their boots)?
Do you frequently seek staff ideas i.e. meetings, surveys, 1x1s and use the ideas not just pay lip service?
Do you have an attitude of 'I know best' over staff or do you know that team opinion matters?
Do you hold back any secrets that staff find out about via gossip at water cooler?
Are you drunk on authority - frequently reminding everyone who is boss?
Are you fast to sort out any bullying? You aren’t the bully are you?
Do you have a 'no asshole rule'?
Are you keen to dish out responsibility, develop the team and show you trust your team?
Are you not scared to see ‘the yuck’ and address the weakest parts of the business?
Do you always put workers first (even before customers)?
Are you unafraid of facing your own faults and addressing them?
Are you secure enough to get your staff to answer this boss quiz anonymously to hear their thoughts on you (and not be defensive when reading the results)?

Give your staff this quiz – I dare you! You will learn a lot about yourself.

FYI: The Boss Benchmark is now also available in an e-version for $30NZD – purchase at

March 13, 2009

How to survey your staff successfully

If you want to listen to your staff but you have no idea where to start, take a look at my article "How to survey your staff successfully". It gives you tips about what to do and why. If things are a bit quiet at your work currently then use your time wisely and do a staff survey.

The full link is:

Thanks to Kelley at who loved my 'audit your secrets' article so much she used it as a guest blog here

March 10, 2009

Why you should audit the secrets you keep from your staff

In the 'old days' there were plenty of things that management kept secret from staff. These days, any business that wants to really excel cannot afford to have that still be the case in their workplaces. In my book The Boss Benchmark I talk about doing a 'secrets audit'. I decided to write an article about how exactly one should go about doing just that. Check it out here.

March 6, 2009

What staff loathe in a boss...

Hierarchy is old fashioned and based on fear. It doesn’t serve people, the business or profits. Weak leaders hide in hierarchies. Just like the previous example of yelling to try and gain respect, if you rely on hierarchy to make yourself feel good, take a look at your self esteem. If its low you won’t be capable of inspiring your team.

Power trips
Similar to hierarchy, some weak bosses get off on assigning gross tasks to staff – just to remind them who ‘holds the power’. If there is a blocked toilet in your workplace, are you humble enough to don the rubber gloves, grab the plunger and get to work? Or would you much rather take pleasure in asking a ‘jerk from accounting’ to attend to the loo problems? Don’t think the whole team doesn’t notice you not being willing to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Bosses are there to serve the staff NOT vice versa remember.

I know of a business that listed itself for sale without telling its staff. A couple of workers were having a cuppa relaxing with the Saturday paper and read the listing. Instead of enjoying their weekend they were wondering if their job would still exist on Monday. The boss was embarrassed about selling the business, so didn’t tell them anything. The lost trust and anger from staff on Monday was a lot worse than a tiny dose of embarrassment. Secrets that management know and workers don’t are energy drainers. Team means team. Put all cards on the table – you can trust your workers with ‘inside’ info. Do a secrets audit in your business to see what you keep from staff and why - at what cost?

Bullying can take many forms – even a dirty look or being intentionally left out of a meeting can be a form of bullying. It doesn’t just affect the person being picked on, but also anyone who witnesses the cruelness. Even small bullying behaviours drags the whole workplace culture down a mile. If it is the boss using bully tactics it is a hundred times worse. The boss is supposed to be the one protecting and nurturing the workplace culture. There are loads of resources on the internet for people suffering bullying.

There is a great book by Bob Sutton called “The No Asshole Rule” – it’s a great read. It is about businesses that will NOT tolerate any assholes in their workplace. Some even have “don’t be a jerk” in their company policies. Also important to be free of are ‘asshole lovers’ – people that allow assholes to behave as they do.

Low energy thinking
The opposite of the high energy staff love is low energy thinking. If you get hit with a problem and you go into ‘high stress’ mode staff will not be impressed. If you frequently utter words such as “why does this always happen to me” “it’s not my fault” or “we’ll never be able to…” these are powerless statements. They show weakness and peg you as a ‘victim’. If you were thinking at a higher level you would handle any issues in an upbeat way, be strong and find a clever solution (instead of being blinded only by the problem).

As a boss, do what the staff love and avoid what staff loathe. If you don’t know what that is in your workplace – get busy asking.

March 4, 2009

What staff love in a boss…

Big Ears
Bosses need seriously big ears. There was once a politician that had really big ears, so he decided to use it in his campaigning. He had billboards with his hands behind his ears and the caption “I’m all ears” – priceless! Great bosses listen to their staff publicly, privately and officially (through staff surveys).

High energy thinking
I don’t mean the kind coffee gives you, I mean a mental and spiritual energy. You should know that your thoughts create your reality through the law of attraction. If your thinking is unhealthy then so to will your results be. Instead think big, think positive and think with high energy. Make sure you have high levels of self awareness. Learn all you can about yourself, your habits (good and bad), your downfalls and what you need for your mental and spiritual wellbeing. Use empowering language and always see the bright side – think solutions not problems.

Craziness (the great kind!)
Be fun and flexible. Remember your team are human’s first workers second. Do impulsive coffee runs for the team; remember to put fun into the working day. Don’t be strict, boring and stern. Be playful, happy and understanding.

Focus on results not hours
Give your staff trust and freedom. Don’t micromanage – checking they adhere to break times, monitoring the number and duration of personal calls. When staff have control over their work circumstances they become engaged. The authors of the book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It” educate businesses about ‘Results Only Work Environments’ (ROWE). Their systems are based on “the radical idea that staff are adults”. It is a shame the majority of businesses don’t already realise this!

Self discipline
A boss that has strong self discipline is more likeable and effective than one that is lazy and full of excuses. Self discipline shows in your attitudes to work but also in things like what you eat and if you exercise. If your staff see you stuffing a donut in your face every morning tea, KFC at every lunch and 16 coffees during the other working hours they probably won’t think you are a genius. Geniuses don’t feed themselves like that. People that are full of energy also adore the feeling of exercise - blood surging, muscles being pushed and lungs begging for mercy! Exercise and diet say a lot about a person. What you do (or don’t do) in your personal life has an affect on your working life.

Authentic authority
I once met a boss who when he wanted to be taken seriously would raise his voice and yell at his staff. He thought this showed authority and ‘who was boss’. He didn’t realise however that this behaviour made staff lose the little respect they had left for him. They thought it was pathetic and a terrible tactic. On the other end of the scale, a boss from another department whom the team had a lot of respect for would speak with lowered volume when he wanted attention. He didn’t need to use scare or stand over tactics. He didn’t need volume to assert his authority. Staff can see right through ‘power seeking’ behaviours. You need to earn staff respect before they will take what you say seriously. If you are a yeller, maybe your self esteem needs attention.

Learning addiction
With all the crazy new technologies like twitter, blogging, wikis, YouTube etc it is important to have a very open mind. There are also a gazillion management books around all promising something fabulous (The Boss Benchmark is of course magnificent!). Just like trees, we humans are either growing or dieing. Get yourself a healthy addiction to learning, it will be inspiring, keep you on the edge and give you a wide perspective. Maybe your team could try to learn something new each week – with a different person ‘coaching’ each time.

FYI: you can now download the first few chapters of my book for free from - have a nosy then share the link with other bosses!