Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
Here’s a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.
1. How to get team buy-in for an unpopular change
I am coming into a position that has experienced a large amount of turnover. First, a long-time employee retired, then they had several different managers who did not work out, then I was hired. The employees have told me that they feel overworked and under-appreciated, and I have heard the dreaded “I don’t get paid enough for this” more than once. My employees seem to like me as I listen to their concerns, but my employer has told me that a change the staff has fought against in the past is coming whether they like it or not (the addition of a duty that they are afraid will take up a significant amount of their time) and I need to smooth that transition and ensure staff buy-in.
Do you have advice for dealing with unpopular workplace changes?
You can’t necessarily ensure staff buy-in, but you can try for it. The keys are to let people know that their input was heard and appreciated but that ultimately the decision was X, to be transparent about why the decision was made, and to be open about how their concerns about X will be handled.
For example: “I know a lot of you felt strongly that taking on X would be too time-consuming. I made sure that Jane and Bob understood those concerns, and in particular shared your points about Y and Z. While they understood those concerns, they ultimately concluded that we’re the only place X can land right now, since Marketing and Sales are both swamped with the summer launch. So we’re going to take on X and try to make it work. However, we’ll keep a close eye on how it goes, and if Y or Z do become a problem, come talk to me and we’ll figure out how to handle it.”
(Of course, then you really need to do that last part.)
2. Did I make a mistake by reprimanding my direct report’s employee?
I’m in a senior management position at my workplace and I supervise a handful of managers. One of these managers (Sarah) is currently dealing with a challenging employee (Ava). Ava has started having lengthy, loud personal conversations in the open office area, which is a problem. Sarah has addressed this with Ava several times. I have zero problems with how Sarah has been handling the situation, but Ava doesn’t seem to be getting the message.
Ava’s desk is right outside my office. Recently she had another inappropriately lengthy and loud personal call at her desk, while I was in my office with the door open. I was messaging with Sarah and basically said, “You should say something to her, unless you want me to, just to see if that gets the message across a little more emphatically.” Sarah agreed that this might help, so a little while later I asked Ava if we could talk and basically said, “This is still a problem, I know Sarah has talked to you about it, I wanted to say something today because I noticed it happening, and I want you to realize that Sarah isn’t the only person who’s aware of this and it’s something you need to get serious about addressing.”
At the time, Ava seemed fine. Later, she complained to Sarah that she was upset that I would talk to her about something like this I’m not her manager. She was apparently incredulous that Sarah didn’t immediately agree with her and is still frustrated that I would speak with her directly about it. Based on all the problems we’ve been having with Ava, her grasp of professional norms doesn’t seem to be the greatest, but now I’m second-guessing whether I committed a faux pas.
Ava is wrong. Ava is part of the overall team you’re responsible for, and you do have standing to talk with her about this kind of thing.
Whether or not it was wise is a different issue, because stepping in like this can end up undermining the person’s manager. It’s true that it hearing from their boss’s boss can make someone take a situation more seriously — but then you have an employee who doesn’t respect her boss enough to take things seriously unless she hears a message from higher up, and that’s not good. In general, it’s better to coach the manager from behind the scenes to handle the situation herself. There are a few exceptions to this, like when the problem is very serious and the manager is a new/inexperienced one … but in general, your default should be to coach the manager to act on her own, rather than acting for her.
But that aside, you did have the standing to have the conversation you had with Ava, particularly since her phone call was disturbing you. Frankly, it sounds like there are bigger, ongoing issues with Ava, so I’d recommend coaching Sarah to help her resolve the situation one way or another in the near future.
3. How to ask a coworker not to eat onions in the office
We have recently added a new member to our team. We mostly work in an open cubicle format, and she sits very near me. She brings in strong smelling food several times a week — bacon in the morning, and often onions around lunchtime. I’m normally pretty tolerant of smells, but right now I’m pregnant and the smells make me want to vomit. It’s so bad I have to leave my desk and go into the hallway to breathe.
I have yet to disclose to my manager that I’m expecting, as I want to get past the first trimester, but I do not think I can tolerate the onion smell much longer. Is there some sort of polite script you might recommend? I don’t work with her too frequently, though everyone in the office is on a fairly cordial basis.
“I’m so sorry to ask this and I realize it’s an inconvenience, but I have a temporary medical condition right now that’s making me really sensitive to certain smells. I’m finding that bacon and onions are particularly rough on me — those smells are making me nauseous to the point that I have to leave my desk and go stand in the hallway. Is there any way you’d be willing to hold off on bringing those into our area for the next couple of months? Like I said, it’s a temporary condition, so it won’t be forever — but it would really help me get through this period.”
If she’s someone who tends to be defensive or prickly, one trick to keep in mind: With people like that, often the more you can make it about asking them for a favor — a generous favor that you’d be so grateful for, rather than implying there’s any obligation on their part to act — the more willing they are to oblige.
4. What does “not enough applicants” mean?
What does it mean when a job “doesn’t have enough applicants?” Why does a specific number of applicants need to be reached before interviewing/hiring someone?
Sometimes it means “we have internal rules that we interview X number of candidates for every opening, and we don’t have X people who are strong enough to interview yet.” Sometimes it means “we only have one person who’s plausible for the role and that’s not a healthy applicant pool so we’re going to do more to build it up because we want to make sure we’re hiring the best person we can.” Sometimes it means “we’re not thrilled with our applicant pool in general so need to do more to generate applications.”
5. I need to book work travel but am waiting on a job offer
I’m waiting for an offer for a position I applied for a few months ago. I went through three rounds of interviews, and then HR called me and said I should expect an offer.
Well, for my current job, I just learned I need to travel right around the time I was hoping to be starting this new job.
I want to send an email to the hiring manager to get an update because if I will be starting a new job the week of the trip or right after, I don’t want to travel (and it would not be advantageous for my department to send someone who is going to leave the next week). Should I send something to the hiring manager, and how do I phrase that email?
If there’s an easy way to get out of the travel, I’d just do that. For example, in some cases you could simply say, “That’s a bad week for me to travel; I have non-work things I need to be in town for” and that would be sufficient.
But if that won’t work, then it’s reasonable to email your contact and say something like, “Any chance you can tell me what timeline to expect for the offer you mentioned? I might hold off on booking some work travel, depending on what your timeline is.”
But also, it’s not uncommon for an employer to tell you an offer is coming soon and then have it take much longer than you’d expect. Sometimes this stuff just gets delayed. So if you can’t get out of the travel, you might just need to book it and cancel it later. That stuff happens; it’s part of doing business and can’t always be avoided. (And you need to factor in that even if you receive the offer quickly, you might be far apart on terms and need to negotiate or it might fall apart altogether. So it can make sense to just proceed in your current job as if you’re staying, until you have absolute confirmation that you’re not.)
Opinions first published by Inc.com columnists at Inc.com. link