As a CEO, you recognize the importance of keeping your talent happy, and of keeping problems to a minimum. All too often, you wind up in the middle of employee concerns, with a line at your door either to complain or to ask you to solve a problem. Once you’re seen in the role of company psychiatrist, you’ll have a difficult time changing expectations.
Following are five tips on how to avoid becoming a “shrink” to your employees:
1. Write your own job description, literally. You need to be clear about your role for yourself. Set aside time to think about and record what the key functions of your job are. Your description should exclude “counselor,” “psychiatrist,” “therapist,” even “problem solver.”
2. Spell out the behavior your organization expects in the workplace. Write down what professional behavior looks like and distribute to your staff. Employees must be told that if they bring personal issues to work, and those issues have an impact on their performance, there will be consequences. Having clear expectations allows both co-workers and managers to hold people accountable.
3. Train your managers to manage. One of your roles as CEO is to coach management to solve their own problems, not train them to expect you to do so. This is obvious, yet it can slip through the cracks of daily business. Your managers are your first line of defense against employee complaints reaching your door. When an employee does come to your door, politely and firmly send him back to his manager.
4. Establish an ombudsman committee. Select those employees who have exhibited the ability to listen well, to be objective, to respond in a measured way, and to make good decisions. Ideally they’re your managers, but having a staff person or two on the committee sends a good message. Use your employment lawyer, Vistage chair, or an HR consultant to train them in complaint resolution. Give committee members the tools they need to help your staff resolve their own problems. Make sure members of this group see their selection as a reflection of their abilities, rather than a chore. Reward them above the norm, e.g., with an extra day off, or dinner out with their spouse or partner. Rotate your ombudsmen. Have one person be the ombudsman for the quarter, so he doesn’t burn out on complaints and not get his own job done.
5. Establish a written process that doesn’t include you. Be very clear as to how issues are to be resolved and who is to help resolve them. Consider having levels of concerns, much like IT departments have Level One, Level Two, Level Three issues. The person who eats sardines at his desk every day is a Level One. The screaming co-worker is a Level Three, etc. Being able to assess the level of severity will determine the response needed.
One last thought: see if your insurance company can provide confidential assistance to employees with personal problems, or look for an employee assistance program that works with small businesses. In this way, you can refer a troubled staffer to a resource that can help with an underlying issue, while still holding him or her accountable for good job performance.
Barbara Kurka, an experienced HR professional, offers executive coaching; management training, and HR consulting, the latter uniquely geared toward small businesses. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.