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April 24, 2006
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Elephants in the Workplace!

A researcher recently reported in the journal New Scientist on the results of her study of an unfortunate phenomenon occurring in Kenya. Young male elephants more than ever before are going on rampages which inflict serious damage on farms, fences and crops.

At first glance, it might appear that these problems are the result of the territorial clashes between humans and elephants, which consume so much food (an estimated 220 to 400 pounds per individual per day) that they require a food court larger than Minnesota’s Mall of the Americas.

However, this researcher proposes a theory from which we can all learn. She believes that the phenomenon of out-of-control youths - especially male youths - derives from a breakdown of the traditional family and social development structure of the elephants.

With poaching and culling, the matriarchal family life of the elephant is disrupted as more and more young creatures are without mothers. The result is they mature and migrate by themselves, without the guidance, the learning opportunities and the role models that traditional family life has afforded them for millennia.

Take these basic infrastructure foundations away, and the young elephants are left to create their own relationships built upon violent power. These are relationships which resemble human gangs, as well as behavioral disorders manifesting in violent outbursts. Carry that forward several generations and new "family models" emerge that do not bode well for species survival. Poaching would be joined by sanctioned human intervention to kill violent elephants causing even more species depredation.

Stability and adaptation to changing circumstances lose out to the champions of violence, ruled by physical strength, ferocity and threats. This scenario sounds a lot like the gang violence dominating parts of the world, including parts of the United States.

There are lessons to be learned for the workplace. Increasingly human resources as a profession responds to behavioral threats at work. Certainly these include bullying and violence, but they also include the clones of such poor behavior as sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination and generally heightened workplace liabilities.

On a much more subtle, but still serious note, is the challenge of dealing with employees who seem to do brilliantly until several hours after they successfully complete a probationary period. At that point they are "knighted" with a title and entitlements of a "permanent" employee. Suddenly their behavior may change to the point where they are no longer considered a go-to employee, but a "get-away-from" person. Supervisors and managers often lack the training, experience and confidence to be able to figure out how to approach these employees constructively. The fact is that they may well have been promoted from among the ranks of employees displaying the same behaviors.

Sadly, response and reaction are far more likely to occur than proaction and prevention.

When a problem occurs in the workplace, we often substitute neglect and walking-by behavior instead of providing a stable and clear vision with consistently applied guidelines. We fail to invest the time and resources we need to encourage and appreciate supervisors who effectively coach, document, train and intervene to prevent instead of enable problem behavior.

The elephants face a bleak future in the wild. This is a consequence of stable family structure and next- generation development giving way to chaos. The same threats put the workplace at risk and create an environment of opportunities for predatory plaintiff attorneys.

When it comes to overt or subtle choices, such as intervention and supervisory development versus neglect and reaction, a great danger is that we will default to the latter. The result will be that the public service-oriented species will also face depredation. Generations of harm to taxpayers will occur, services that could have been improved will not be, and customer service encounters at the front counters of business and local governments will resemble a rogue elephant encounter instead of a spectacular service opportunity.

Don’t be an agency leader who lapses into a coma when it comes to making a decision to be proactive. It takes time to see the results of investments in the future of accountability instead of liability. Like the mating of elephants, there is a lot of noise and trumpeting. There is a lot of high-level contact but nothing may happen for two years. Start now to corral the rogue!

All the best,

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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