Foundational HR

Many years ago, when I was in my first real job, I worked for a pharmaceutical manufacturer. As was becoming the fashion but is now de riguer, employees were required to take training from human resources for employee interaction, needs identification and conflict resolution.

At the time, it consisted of getting a group of employees together to watch a VHS video coupled with an instructor-led discussion of the different scenarios involved and what could have been done better–initially, during and after the interaction.

One of these videos stands out even after all these years. I’ve tried to track it down online, but it has probably been shelved since the fashions were out of date even when I viewed it the first time. The screen resolution was striped and grainy from repeated viewings. What stood out then and still stands out in my mind though was how it addressed what I consider foundational HR issues and things like responsibility to oneself and co-workers.

In the video, a woman sitting at her desk picks up her phone and calls a person in another department. The co-worker is male and works in IT. With few pleasantries, the woman demands help. The co-worker, in return, is short with her. The conversation ends and the woman is upset and escalates to management. Management intervenes and basically coaches the pair on how to play nice.

The group discussion I was involved with focused on characters in the video, Fred* and Velma, and their method of requesting and responding. To make the HR point, the scene and its message were supposed to be cut and dried, so I don’t fault the video or its script writers for  the intended message conveyed. What raised my eyebrows was how the people who viewed the video missed what I considered the Foundational HR flaw.

So, back to the scene: after Velma hangs up the phone (remember, this was before chat and texting), she turns in her chair and complains to her co-worker about Fred. What a miserable SOB he is, etc. The co-worker nods her head sympathetically. The scene cuts to Fred, who has turned to his co-worker and is complaining about Velma wasting his time. Then he states that THIS IS THE SECOND TIME THIS WEEK HE HAS SHOWN HER HOW TO DO THIS.

After this, we, the observers, discussed how Fred and Velma should have handled the conflict. There were a lot of soft suggestions like “use a nicer tone”, and “apologize for behavior”. But something didn’t sit right with me, so I raised my hand and said, “Velma or Fred should have written down the instructions.” The discussion leader eyed me coolly and paused…and then went to another raised hand. Being young I allowed her stare to quell any further pursuit of my observation and we got back to what an SOB Fred was.

This baffled me, as the crux of the problem and what created the conflict was that Velma again needed information which was provided previously provided. The conflict was a result, but not the fundamental issue.

No wonder Fred was upset–he was just berated by someone who demanded help for a task he had already shown them how to do. The video focused on Fred and Velma’s interaction and response and how they should have handled it.

Now a few caveats. I understand the intent of the video was to demonstrate how to communicate with co-workers better. It is important as an adult to communicate our ideas and opinions without devolving into an argument and hurt feelings. People need to treat each other civilly in an office environment (and elsewhere!). And, learning better ways to express anger and frustration and avoid hostilities is important.

Some important information: First, being the monkeys we are, to quell our simian roots we begin training the our control of emotions starting at birth. Many parents call this “manners”. Second, many tasks need more than one walk through before they become fluid. Third, as the little aphorism says, “Your crisis is not my crisis,” so escalating it by screaming, yelling, arm waving, foot stamping, etc. will only make it your crisis with me responding to it with matching anger. Fourth, if the proper foundations were in place, then when this crisis appeared, its escalation would match its criticality–one does not yell “fire” in the movie theater if they see only the glow of a cigarette (not applicable today, but it was many moons ago). And fifth, if Velma had been shown the process earlier, then there should have been some documentation around to jog her memory when she was required to repeat it.

If you are familiar with six sigma and its brethren 5S, then an appendage to the 5S methodology is to incorporate a system to make information available when it is needed: right now, in a week or in a month. What Velma needed was not another explanation–that just pulls Fred away from his work and doesn’t guarantee Velma future issues–but an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), guide, tool or template to follow to get to a point where she can complete the process on her own. If that means further training with Fred, then that needs to be built into a plan. If it means Fred left Velma with instructions or Velma took notes, then that needs to be built into a plan.

So…a few years later, different company, same video, and another instructor led discussion with a different instructor. When it came up as to what Fred and Velma should have done differently, I raised my hand and stated my same premise as before. When the instructor paused with her stare this time (they must be coached this), I continued with my observation that the solution was to make sure either Fred had left enough information with Velma or Velma had enough information from Fred so that both could go on their way and neither would have had to have angry words. Even if planning to meet again at another time for more training was better than demanding someone help you. This time I only got a little sigh from the instructor.

The moral is if you have incorporated a plan, procedure or SOP for foundational activities and information, then you won’t have to deal with Fred and Velma and their bad interaction. You could probably even hire Shaggy and Scooby to do the work for mere snacks because you would have such a great plan in place you could hire just about anyone–even a talking dog–and they could figure out the work because of all your wonderful documentation.

In the end, planning and documenting should be part of any process. When you onboard someone, you have a plan, right? Right?

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*My apologies to Hanna-Barbera