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April 25, 2005
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Who are You, and What Have You Done with My Co-Worker?

All of us display attitude and behavioral characteristics which mark us and define us in the eyes of others. For example, you may be a fortunate person with a cheerful, optimistic disposition who makes others feel good with your mere presence.

You may be a "go to" person regarded by others as someone to approach with any project no matter how difficult it is to get the job done. You may, on the other hand, walk around with a nimbus cloud over your head, seeing the negative side of events, shunning opportunities to step out and try something new, and wanting to disengage from others rather than be more sociable.

Whether we recognize it or not, our attitudes and behaviors towards others define us in the eyes of others, as much if not more, than physical characteristics such as gender, height or skin color. Most people come to accept who they are or create an image of who they are in their own minds. This may be the case even as they are quick to identify and typecast others.

Unfortunately, this typecasting can lead to the wrong response to workplace behaviors which should be interrupted and changed. In the most cases, the victims of threatening behavior at work just put up with it. Most do not report such incidences even though the inappropriate behaviors will get worse if not properly challenged and changed.

The HR Doctor’s new book, Don’t Walk by Something Wrong!, did not get its title by accident. Ignoring threatening, sexually inappropriate or racist behaviors is bad for the workplace and the coworkers. Ironically, it is also bad for the perpetrator since the unchecked behaviors will lead the perpetrator to believe that this kind of offensive conduct is a path to achieving his goals. The use of the masculine "his" is not accidental since most such perpetrators are male.

This article, however, focuses on another workplace reality. Occasionally, some rather spectacular transformation can occur in the attitude, outlook or demeanor of a colleague at work. The transformation may lead you to suspect that the "real" person whose behavior has changed so much so quickly has been kidnapped by aliens and some form of clone has been sent back to earth in the person’s place.

Sometimes, the change in attitude is derived from some major life event such as divorce, death of a relative, marriage, graduation of children from college or the safe return of a child/soldier from an assignment in Iraq. These transformations can lift burdens and lift spirits. These life events can cause a colleague to appear to have been reborn in the eyes of the coworkers who have difficulties believing that it is the same person.

An Employee Assistance program (EAP) can sometimes be a great asset in helping an individual or workplace accelerate a positive rebirth of attitude and work habits. The counseling, the privacy and the coaching which a great EAP professional, such as Florida’s Pat Erichsen or Jennifer Pechenik, can deliver can become a catalyst in literally changing the life of a coworker. Just as plastic surgeons will tout the value of a facelift to make you look and feel younger (if not also much poorer), so too can a lift in spirits change the way a person views herself and the way others view her.

Events can also create a "negative rebirth," turning a person previously regarded as pleasant and thoughtful into a mini version of Godzilla. The inverse of some of the events described above can induce depression, change personal health for the worse and replace a sunny disposition with one clouded by negative behaviors. The reality is that major negative events such as widowhood or a runaway child will affect anyone’s behavior at work and elsewhere. A substance abuse problem or a serious health problem will also change behavior for the worse.

A lesson for a great manager or supervisor is very clear. Be on the lookout for changes in behavior for the good and for the bad. To recognize a change in behavior, however, a great manager must first know what baseline "normal" is. Then any significant change or anomaly can be detected. Once an anomaly pops up, the manager has an opportunity - and arguably an obligation - to do some kind of intervention. Hopefully, it is a positive one such as congratulating the coworker on the perseverance and the success of their weight loss program, or acknowledging the fact that their work has improved and that others have noticed.

It may involve encouraging the person to continue in their positive development such as enrolling in a graduate education program after they have completed a bachelor’s degree.

The manager has an equal obligation and opportunity, perhaps a greater one considering the liability, to intervene promptly and respectfully when behavior troubles surface. Behavior and performance are closely linked Ð one affects the other. The behavior of a threatening bully at work affects the bully’s performance as well as the performance of others. Not walking by a problem is the critical step that a manager must take to keep a virus of poor behavior from spreading and growing in the workplace.

Not sure how to get help about a problem? The answer is, or should be, a proactive HR Department.

Great HR is marked by responsiveness and a sympathetic, collegial willingness to understand what is going on in the workplace and to offer sound and timely advice. If that is the kind of HR which exists in your organization, take full advantage of it. When a behavior transplant is appropriate, don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to ask for advice and help. However, if the HR organization in your agency doesn’t respond, or if they focus only on process and not outcome, then steps should be taken with agency leaders right away to diagnosis the problem in HR and apply the right treatment. In such a case where the HR organization itself is in need of help, the quicker the organization’s leadership can intervene and help, the better.

The HR Doctor hopes your stay on a deserted island is with a positive "go to" colleague!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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