Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is it Ever OK for a Leader to “Cross the Line”?

There’s been a storm of controversy these days about the use of employer sponsored wellness programs as a way to get a handle on sky-rocketing health care costs. The proponents of this strategy argue that employee health care costs are a business issue, they’re controllable to some extent, and that wellness programs can only be a win-win for the employee and the company.

Companies are also offering financial fitness programs, recognizing that if employees are having personal financial problems, these problems can spill over to the workplace and affect job performance.

The critics of these programs say companies have no right to intrude into an employee’s personal lives; that these kinds of big brother programs and policies are “crossing the line”.

While I find it to be a fascinating debate (and I’m right in the middle of it at my own company), I find it just as interesting to ponder the implications for leaders.

Here’s the scenario: let’s say you’re a great leader. (So, that rules out all of the idiot bosses out there – we’re not talking about them). And as a great leader, you fully embrace your responsibility for the success of your organization and your employees.

As a great leader, you also genuinely care about your employees. They’re not just disposable human capital assets or resources – they are people, with families, part of a community, as well as an important and valued member of your team. They matter to you.

What if you’re aware of some kind of behavior or issue that’s having or could have a detrimental personal impact on the employee?

Now we all know what the HR policy, management 101 answer would be: “it’s none of a manager’s business as long as it’s not having an impact on job performance.”

But is that an acceptable answer for the kind of scenario and leader I’ve described? “Yes, it’s OK that your employee is flushing their lives down the crapper, as long as they’re hitting those productivity targets!”

What if you’re watching your employee smoke, overeat, not exercise, drink too much, etc…. and you’re thinking to yourself, “omg, old Fred’s killing himself, and he’s going to leave his wife a widow and his kids without a Dad?” As a great leader, is it OK to have a heart to heart with him about his habits?

What if you’re watching one of your employees drown in dept, not contribute anything to her 401K, and compulsively max out her charge cards on lavish toys and entertainment? Would it be OK to sit her down and counsel her on responsible prudent financial management?

How about if you’ve gotten to know one of your employee’s family, and you find out he’s been a frequent escort service customer (“Elliot, are you out of your freaking mind!?”)?

Or you notice one of your employees is been consistently “down in the dumps”, and you wish they could be happy?

How about if you were convinced that if your employee would only improve their sloppy appearance that it would translate to greater success (yes, studies have shown that looks do matter - watch out for the ugly police)?

Perhaps it’s helpful to look at this as an employee too: if you had a great leader for a manager (with a trusting relationship), how you react if your manager approached you on one of these topics?

I’m genuinely torn on this (shocker, no “10 ways to do this or that” list). For the most part, I’ve stayed on the safe and proper side of the line, and maybe dipped a toe over now and then on a rare occasion.

How about you? I’d love to hear from managers, employees, executive coaches (the same question could apply to you too, unless you market yourself as a “life coach”), and HR pros.


Anonymous said...

For me there is a very clear line between personal life vs. professional life. What happens at work stays at work, what happens at home stays at home, "Never the twain shall meet."

I can do this because I ardently believe in the following: regardless of how I feel about someone personally, it is their professional performance that I judge at work. Unfortunately, some people are not able to do this, and that's why we have volumes of HR policies.

Anonymous said...

Dan - Great topic. I think it's perfectly acceptable to ask an employee how things are going & how you can help if you see something potentially "scary" going on (i.e. taking loan after loan from their 401k, sloppy dressing, literally making themselves ill due to poor choices). But be careful to yank out the rather large plank sticking out of your own eye before you start talking pointing out theirs.

I also think it's a good idea for every manager, leader, HR pro, etc. to have a nice fat stack of employee assistance program brochures on their desk. I encourage leaders to try out the EAP for themselves as well (even if it's not necessarily needed - to test drive the service so they can give employees an honest "review" of it).

People need to be careful that they are not projecting their values onto others. Sure, exercising and eating right may be like a religion to some, but it's not to everyone. You can probably pull a lot of data that says exercising and eating right make you more productive, healthier, live longer, sleep better and generally be in a better state of mind. BUT, it's not your place, as an employer (or even friend, in my opinion) to get in someone's business if they would rather eat Cheetos for breakfast. It's just not. Assuming your employee is an adult, he or she most likely already knows what is or isn't good for him or her. You're not a genius because you eat right and exercise. You're just someone who has made a different choice & has different priorities.

If you want to have a wellness program, go for it. But recognize that wellness is not just physical & when you only focus on one aspect of it, you are encouraging a lop-sided view and quite possibly ticking people off instead of inspiring them.

That's the clincher: as a leader try to inspire people. Walk your talk & gain some deserved respect. Only then will you be in a position to be looked up & listened to for anything, let alone "the touchy stuff".

Dan McCarthy said...

Jenn –

Just when I was afraid I was losing my touch (not many comments lately), I get a lengthy (and wise) response from the HR Wench! Thanks.

Good idea on the EAP – how can you recommend it to others if you haven’t checked it out yourself?

And you’re right on about projecting your values. It does get a little murky though if you’re afraid someone’s “values” is getting them in serious trouble, especially if it’s criminal, unethical, or sometimes just self-destructive or stupid (all on their own time, of course - like Elliot).

Finally, I love your last point about being a role model. That’s where it starts, and maybe should end. Lead by example, both professional and personally.

Anonymous said...

Great question, Dan. It seems to me that the way it's phrased, though, postulates that the "crossing the line" conversation happens in a vacuum. It doesn't.

In my research on great supervisors, I found that the great ones show up a lot and that they have lots of informal conversations with their team members. The content of those conversations deals with work matters and other matters.

Those frequent conversations set up some important parts of the situation for that great supervisor. First, he or she knows the team member and the team member knows them. That's important because it's where trust grows.

It's also where the great supervisor establishes the fact that he or she cares about the team member as well as performance. That makes it possible to raise "across the line" subjects.

But a third thing that grows out of those conversations is the knowledge that the supervisor can't cross the line with some people. For whatever reason some team members draw a bright "line of death" between their work and personal lives.

I define the supervisor's job as caring for the people and accomplishing the mission. In that context and in the context of multiple conversations, the supervisor can make a good judgment about whether and how to discuss that "off limits" topic.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Well said, as always. It starts with a foundation of trust, as well as knowing your team.


Anonymous said...

As Wally says these discussions don't happen in vacuum. If someone is a consultant and working part-time, then it is a different story. But I try to spend a lot of informal time with my group and sometimes I do listen to their 'non-official' life stories. Because we are people and we can't compartmentalize our emotions - at least not all the time. Some big issues at home will definitely disturb the rhythm at office. So it is okay to cross the line, provided you've built trust first. Also to know it is upto them to take it or leave it. You can't push your solution down their throat.

BTW: A good thought provoking article. I'm going to refer this article to my other colleagues.

Dan McCarthy said...

Joseph -
I'm with you.
Thanks for passing this along to others, I hope it stimulates some good debate.