People problems can start with the smallest of things. At a previous company Gina Sharp, a director of communications firm White Label Media, found herself with a crisis on her hands after two senior members of staff had a dispute about the air conditioning, with one finding the room too cold and the other too hot.
‘It started quite comically and we were all amused,’ she says. ‘But it became a battle of wills between two big egos in the company.’
Sharp addressed the conflict by taking them into a private room and explaining that the men were setting a poor example. The two appeared to make up, but the following morning Sharp arrived to find one of the protagonists throwing the other’s gourmet coffee grounds in the bin.
‘The other guy came raging into the office demanding who had thrown away his expensive coffee. I realised there was a problem here.’
Sharp decided to continue to make light of the problem and everyone in the office bought into the joke. ‘If it had got to the point where people were taking sides that would have been disastrous, but we’d had a few confrontations over the years which we used humour to defuse. It’s difficult for people to carry on being precious when others are having a snigger at them.’
Dealing with miscreants
While humour can be used to defuse staff problems before they escalate, sometimes making an outright example of clashing employees can be effective. Turnaround specialist Ashley Ward, a director of business consultancy European Leaders, remembers having to deal with two employees having a heated, ugly dispute by email.
‘The communication culture at that company was very much dictated by email rather than face-to-face communication,’ says Ward. ‘These two were sending disparaging messages back and forth and copying me in on each correspondence, trying to get me on their side.’
Ward’s admittedly bold solution was to print out two copies of the email threads, highlight them in different colours and gather the entire office around, telling them that the two were going to put on a special performance.
‘I gave them the “scripts” and made them read the emails out to each other. The office was in hysterics. Afterwards, I told them to go outside into the car park and do whatever they needed to do to each other, but come back working harmoniously. And they did.’
Ward says that, in the main, staff are easy to manage if they feel part of what the company is trying to achieve. ‘Management makes it hard for itself by micromanaging, not trusting people, interfering in everything staff do, which leads to a reduction in people’s confidence. If you treat them like that, their talent doesn’t come out.
‘People need to have a voice and feel that they are making a contribution to a common goal,’ he adds.
Be prepared for excess
Aside from office disagreements, it is wise for employers to make sure they are prepared for possible excess among staff, especially as Christmas approaches. Allison Grant, partner at law firm Lester Aldridge, says that by way of preparation managers should circulate an email to employees reminding staff what is and isn’t acceptable and of the potential disciplinary sanctions.
‘Consider including a warning about excessive alcohol consumption and failure to attend work for reasons related to a hangover,’ she says.
It may seem overzealous, but it’s also important to check your anti-bullying, harassment and equal opportunities policies are up-to-date. If not, your company could be held liable for any regrettable behaviour on the part of an employee. ‘If you don’t have [policies] in place, get them quickly or you will have no defence against a claim for harassment or discrimination,’ says Grant.
Careful thought should be given to the timing and content of the staff party. Choosing a weekday evening could give rise to a suspicious outbreak of flu the following day, while casino nights and lap dancing clubs are an obvious no-no, says Grant. It may be unpopular with those appointed, but getting trusted supervisors in place to oversee events and deal with incapacitated employees can make the night easier to manage.
It is worth remembering that not every member of staff is well suited to certain leisure plans. Margery McBain, managing director of personnel outsourcing company Gravitate HR, remembers a previous role as HR manager of a Scottish business. McBain was asked to attend an annual sales briefing session and corporate bash before the Christmas season. That year required the team to fly to its destination which turned out to be quite difficult for one employee.
‘This particular manager seemed to take the opportunity for freedom and partying a bit too far and her behaviour became embarrassing and inappropriate,’ says McBain. ‘In the end it was decided that I would accompany her back home rather than remaining at the sales conference.’
On the way home it became apparent to McBain that the manager was petrified of flying but had been too embarrassed to say so, thinking she wasn’t able to ask for alternative means of transport.
‘We got home safely but it was distressing for the manager personally and professionally. She was out of her depth and in truth the organisation had contributed to putting her in that position.’
It is an example of a problem that could have been prevented, and is not the sort of thing that makes the HR person popular with employees. As McBain sums up, ‘The festive season is not the best time of year to be an HR manager as we are seen as the corporate equivalent to Scrooge.
‘But really we just want people to have fun safely and be able to hold their heads up high the next morning.’