Question about staff management in a small office
July 29, 2018 2:09 PM   Subscribe

I manage a small office with a dozen full-time staff, six of whom are direct reports. Last week, I sent an all-staff email outlining my expectations for how people should communicate with one another (don't text after hours unless it is an emergency, always communicate respectfully, and if you have an issue with another staff member, go talk to them directly them about it). I concluded the email by telling them that if they had comments or concerns about the email, please come and speak with me directly.

One of the concerns I was trying to address was keeping people from camping out in one particular person's office and keeping her from working because they were using her as a listening ear instead of speaking to the person they actually should be speaking to about their issue, in this case me.

So again, after receiving an email that specifically instructed the whole staff to talk to me if they had concerns about my expectations for communications, two of my reports individually went right down to that same person's office, camped out, and took up her time complaining about the email, not obliging when she reminded them to come and talk to me, which is the exact opposite of what I had just told everyone to do.

I have spoken with one of these two people and handled it. However, the other person is out of the country for work this whole week and starting the following week, I am gone for nine days, which means the soonest I will see this person is three weeks after the incident.

It seems my options are all bad (handle it by email, handle it by phone when she gets back and I am on vacation, or just wait until we are both in the office and begin the discussion with "Remember that email I sent almost a month ago..."

I have never been in a situation like this before, I feel stuck, and I cannot stop turning this over in my mind. I would love any insight you can give me.

I also realize that I should have handled the camping in the coworker's office individually sooner, and I agree and own that mistake. However, I'm still faced with the issue of these people doing the opposite of what I had just told them to do.

Thanks, as always, for your help. I really appreciate it.
posted by 4ster to Work & Money (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Phone her on your vacation time, not hers.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:30 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to be clear, calling her on her vacation was never a possibility. She is out of the country on work, not vacation. My apologies for the confusion.
posted by 4ster at 2:33 PM on July 29, 2018

This seems like a rather roundabout communications style, which I would find unclear. I haven't read your email, of course, but I would not necessarily interpret an email that ends in a boilerplate-style "talk to me if you have comments or concerns" to be a specific instruction not to speak to a co-worker about it also. Beyond the texting after hours issue, I'd find this fairly vague, and while I wouldn't ignore your expectations, I wouldn't really have any idea that what you actually meant by all that is "please stop camping in so-and-so's office."

If the actual issue is that people are distracting this person from her work, could that be addressed directly? As in: "these are the sorts of issues to take to person, these are the sorts of issues to take to me" and then if someone comes to person with a you issue, she can clearly say "I need to finish these TPS reports and that's a 4ster issue; you should talk to him about it directly. There he is now. Thanks for stopping by. Bye bye." Is this a problem that the "one particular person" wants to help solve?

I would not go back to someone to tell them off for speaking to a co-worker three weeks ago. Can you just drop the issue at that point, or at least refocus it on specifically what you'd like to happen going forward?
posted by zachlipton at 2:40 PM on July 29, 2018 [19 favorites]

I thought the same as zachlipton; I wouldn't have interpreted that as "stop bothering Peggy" or whoever this poor, beleaguered coworker is. I think you're just going to flat out have to tell these people to let her do her work.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 2:52 PM on July 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

Yeah I'm not sure you are handling this in the way that will get you the results you want. You should be addressing the actual problems with the actual people causing them, not sending vague office-wide passive aggressive emails avoiding the actual issue. I agree with others that "talk to me" doesn't mean "don't talk to other people", and a blanket "don't talk to other people about your complaints in the office" is... Really not ok. You need to help coach the person whose office there camping out in to say something like "I need to get back to work, I'll talk to you later", and then not engage with these people. And you need to address - directly, with the problem people one-to-one - the actual issue instead of being passive and skirting the problem.
posted by brainmouse at 3:32 PM on July 29, 2018 [21 favorites]

One of the concerns I was trying to address was keeping people from camping out in one particular person's office and keeping her from working because they were using her as a listening ear instead of speaking to the person they actually should be speaking to about their issue, in this case me.

And yet, um, you kind of sent a vague general email to everybody about this instead of speaking to the people you should have been speaking to about the issue. Aside from the handling it sooner, I think part of what you need to own is that you are conflict-avoidant but that most people are conflict-avoidant and that nobody really thinks it's the best way to solve a problem but everybody wants to both let off steam and not have to confront people directly.

I think bringing this up later after the fact with, "In retrospect I should have addressed this with you personally instead of doing this email thing, and having realized that I'd like to talk to you personally about how we communicate and how we can both be more comfortable discussing stuff directly in future," is going to be much less of a problem several weeks later than, "And oh by the way I told you to stop doing that so stop doing that."

And in future don't tell people to communicate in a way you aren't comfortable communicating yourself. "Discuss your problem directly with the person you have a problem with" is actually an incredibly hard ask for most people--and honestly most of the people it isn't a hard ask for are assholes? So you need to model how you want these conversations to go so that everybody knows it's possible. If you want people to feel comfortable griping to you, you need to be a person they can gripe to about the stuff you've done without you taking it as a disaster, and maybe you could stand to take the next couple weeks to think about how you become that person.
posted by Sequence at 3:34 PM on July 29, 2018 [33 favorites]

I should add, it being a high expectation to have those conversations directly doesn't mean you shouldn't expect that and that it isn't a good thing! Just that it is a bigger project than you probably were thinking that you were taking on right now.
posted by Sequence at 3:36 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yup, a mass-email is not the way to do this. So what if she bitches to a coworker about you; you’re the boss, expect some back-stabbing.

People don’t talk to you directly because they (or you) are not comfortable speaking directly. You need to change office culture by getting more “in there.” Stop by the complainers office and be all “hey a little birdie told me you don’t like my strategy for whatsits, can we expand on that?” Then shut up and listen.

Or even straighter “hey so and so has a big deadline and is easily distracted (white lie), I’m playing bad cop here and asking for some space for them.”
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:43 PM on July 29, 2018

As a manager who's done this same thing dozens of times, I agree with previous commenters: Your email set or clarified an office policy that, while it is a good one, has nothing to with the issue of people camping out in a coworker's office and preventing her from getting her work done or complaining about their issues to coworkers instead of the right person.

I've found that issues like this are best addressed directly with the individuals in question rather than with a blanket policy email anyway. So even if your email had specifically said "Please do not bother your coworkers to complain about issues while they are working," it likely wouldn't have been effective. The offenders may be utterly clueless (maybe they think Peggy likes having them there, or that they're just venting, etc.) so the policy applies to other people), and even if they aren't, they have plausible deniability about it since they weren't addressed directly. And no matter how explicitly you might have put it, "Don't talk to coworkers about your concerns" is never a good policy and as such will never be adhered to.

So with that in mind, put the though that people are doing the opposite of what you told them to do out of your head for now, and start over: address the two offenders directly, let them know that their behavior needs to change, and give them specific strategies for how if necessary (in my job, it's "Come to me directly. If you're not comfortable doing that, come to my boss and they'll share the issue with me anonymously."). If possible/appropriate, outline potential consequences, even if it's just "We'll have to have a much more serious conversation if this continues." And to be 100% clear, this is about the coworker-bothering behavior, not them failing to follow unclear directions.

You may also want to talk to the office occupant about setting boundaries for herself, as well.

Good luck!
posted by rhiannonstone at 3:44 PM on July 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I just want to jump in and thank everyone for your answers so far. I know in my heart and mind that you are right, and they way you are putting it is really helping me to get my mind around what needs to change in me and my work with my staff.

Thanks everyone. Truly the best of the web.
posted by 4ster at 3:47 PM on July 29, 2018 [12 favorites]

I am here to echo the need to model the behavior you want to see. I am PAINFULLY conflict avoidant and after two multi-year stints of trying to use the method your are using to manage people, I failed. I was (thankfully) removed from a managerial role that was making me very ill and have never looked back. It's hard. I hear you and wish you the best.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 4:15 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

An email seems very official (getting something in writing) for something that at least initially can be laid out casually in a staff meeting with a "hey, don't forget folks, please don't text each other after hours" or in person, "I'm hearing that you are interrupted X's work - if you have issues just come and chat with me about it."

If the issues continue then you should put them into writing, directly to the people violating the rules. Then from there it is documented and is a performance issue, and you include HR.
posted by Toddles at 8:38 PM on July 29, 2018

Last week, I sent an all-staff email outlining my expectations for how people should communicate with one another (don't text after hours unless it is an emergency, always communicate respectfully, and if you have an issue with another staff member, go talk to them directly them about it).

I think you'd do well to pay attention to metacontent. The very first thing a mass email says to each of its recipients, before they even see the content, is "I'm so busy and important that I don't have time to swing by and discuss this with Any Of You in person" and that's pretty much 180° from the message you wanted to communicate.

I also think you'd do well to pay attention to what you're asking of others, and ask yourself whether that's actually your own practice.

Case in point: if you have an issue with another staff member, go talk to them directly about it, face to face.

If you want that communication to be effective, keep half an eye on what they're doing so you can pick a time for that conversation that doesn't involve you Lumberghing them.
posted by flabdablet at 9:55 PM on July 29, 2018

Also, people will have a much easier time figuring out what it actually is that you want from them if you put it explicitly in words instead of getting all elliptical about it.

If the issue is that Peggy is having trouble coping with the level of distraction imposed on her by colleagues dropping by to vent, then you need to ask each of the droppers-in, face to face, to come see you instead of doing that.
posted by flabdablet at 10:01 PM on July 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

The fundamental principle to keep in mind at all times is that people are not machines. You can't program an office full of people by writing and promulgating policy documents. People just don't work that way, so it's pointless to crack the sads when we fail to.
posted by flabdablet at 10:03 PM on July 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Argh, yes, I'm more or less repeating what others have said at this point, but I've been on teams which have suffered terribly on this before - we'd get an annoyed email from a boss, setting out very general standards for behaviour/work in one area or another, and then we'd have to reverse engineer it to work out what had actually annoyed that boss, who needed their work or behaviour corrected, while meanwhile everyone else stressed out and felt like they were being blamed for something they hadn't done!

When problems are specific it's often better to be specific in your feedback. Not only does the general approach not seem to be working in this case, but it may well be creating tension in employees you're perfectly happy with, who may now be worried if they've exhibited these behaviours to a much more minor degree that wouldn't bother you, or even if they've behaved absolutely fine.
posted by ominous_paws at 10:48 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with the consensus (and your subsequent comments) that the email wasn't the right way to address this.

I also manage a small staff and one thing I've found to be quite helpful is to be more visible. Take a tour of your workplace several times a day, check in on people in a friendly way, say hi, chat about what they're doing. This makes you more visible and present to your co-workers (I am a hermit by nature and would never leave my desk at work if I didn't make myself), this makes you more accessible and also helps you be aware of what's going on in the office. It also means you can head off "camping out" before it turns into a marathon. You aren't a prison guard making your rounds, you're a manager making sure you know how things are going, and reviewing how the folks you manage are coping with their workloads and addressing issues if needed. That's your job. Do it in a friendly way ("hey Bob, how's it going?"), but do it.

There is NOTHING wrong with folks chatting with each other about work, and some of that chatting is going to be bitching about you. What a good manager does is to be aware of what's being discussed, assess whether it's letting off steam or a real problem, and then DO something about it if something needs to be done.

And yes, for sure equip the person whose office gets camped out in with skills to stop it from happening.
posted by biscotti at 4:48 AM on July 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m a labor organizer, and one thing I’ve found is that people who manage small offices are frequently unaware they have responsibilities under the National Labor Relations Act - even the best people who want to do the right thing are frequently simply not aware of how their actions look in a labor relations context, or how they may actually be illegal.

If that email, with your disciplinary response afterwards, had been sent to employees in one of the offices I am the union representative for, I’d be taking it straight to the National Labor Relations Board and filing it as evidence of an unfair labor practice - because even though it’s understandable to want people to go directly to you, it’s also against the law for you to try to prohibit employees from communicating about work conditions outside of work hours, and it’s certainly contributing to a hostile environment if you are disciplining people or verbally reprimanding them for complaining about work conditions to other coworkers, especially if you’re not disciplining them for talking about, say, the weather.
posted by corb at 9:01 AM on July 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

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