Thoughts from discrimination prevention trainings—-And what to do with Debbie Downer

Published December 10, 2012

Last week I conducted several discrimination prevention trainings. Since it has been on my mind, it seemed like a good time to write a blog about it. Discrimination prevention begins with supervisor training. Training your supervisors is important because the hardest thing about any job is the people part. It doesn't matter what type of business it is, from selling cars, to repairing barges, to running a city, employee problems always cause the biggest headaches.

Why is it so hard to deal with employee problems? The reason is because supervisors want to pretend the problem doesn't exist (sticking their head in the sand like an ostrich). They hope that if they ignore the problem it will go away. This sounds a lot easier than dealing with the employee directly. Unfortunately, it isn't.

This same behavior occurs in marriages. (And no I am not an expert in marriage, thank you please). In a romantic relationship, an issue comes up, and one partner thinks if he ignores it and lets enough time goes by, the other party will forget about it. WRONG!! This never works. The matter isn't forgotten. It just sits there waiting for the opportunity to flare up again.

The same thing occurs in the workplace. Little problems that are ignored become big problems that end up in lawsuits. It is hard to be direct when dealing with people. It is much easier to let it slide. To make matter worse many supervisors are never trained on how to deal with issues. So they just ignore the problem and hope it goes away. But guess what, it doesn't go away. It just festers and gets worse.

To prevent lawsuits, this ignoring behavior needs to change. Supervisors need to be trained to recognize problems and deal with them directly. They need to understand that hoping the problem will go away "on its own" will never work.

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Supervisors need to understand that juries are going to hold them accountable. When the Company is sued, it is not the Company President being deposed, it is the supervisor. The supervisor is the one in the trenches. The supervisor is the one with the facts. His or her testimony is going to be critical.

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When supervisors are told this in training, they pay attention. No one wants to be the one on the witness stand getting cross examined. Supervisors need to know that the worst thing they can do in an employment case is— to do NOTHING. By doing nothing, the supervisor sends the message that they don't care or that the Company condones the behavior. Many supervisors don't understand this concept. They don't know what to do, so they do nothing. And doing nothing looks terrible to a jury.

Supervisors need to understand that they are the parent, in a sense, and the employees are the children. The Jury is going to hold the Parent accountable, not the kids. And just like kids, employees don't mind rules as long as they are equally and consistently applied. What drives kids and employees crazy is when rules and not consistently applied, i.e. some people get away with breaking the rules and others don't.

Supervisors need to understand that when they don't enforce the rules or when they let employees talk them out of discipline or write-ups, they have just undermined their authority and have lost respect. The employees are not going to respect them because they know they can push them around. Even more detrimental is what that behavior does to the morale of the group. Letting employees break rules sends a message to the rest of the group that they don't need to follow the rules either. Why should they work hard or show up on time when Susie Q breaks the rules, goofs off and comes in late and no one does anything about it. Morale is hurt and productivity goes down.

Also very important is attitude. I once had an employer complain about an employee (Debbie Downer) but stated they couldn't discipline Debbie Downer because her job performance was good. I asked the employer if the other employees noticed a difference when Debbie Downer was out on vacation or sick leave. "Of course", he quickly responded. "The mood is completely different when Debbie Downer is out. Everyone can tell the difference. The atmosphere is much more pleasant." This employer had it all wrong when he thought he couldn't discipline Debbie Downer. He was forgetting that attitude is just as important as performance. In fact, attitude is part of performance. One Debbie Downer in an office can bring the entire group down. Debbie Downers are not doing their job and can and should be disciplined for it. Don't let the job environment become negative because the supervisor fails to discipline a Debbie Downer. http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/debbie-downer-thanksgiving-dinner/1179438/

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