Ruth Haag's Workplace Problem Q & A's

Got a work-related question that you would like Ruth to answer?  Send it to her attention at .  Please understand that your question may be published in our column and may be edited.  We will not reveal your name or e-mail address.

Dear Ruth:
I'm a project manager in the construction department of a utility company.  One of the contractors who bids on my projects invited everyone in my department to a big Christmas party.  My department head told me that he's going, and said that I'd better show up, if I want to be known as a team player.  Then HIS boss, our division VP, sent us all a memo saying that we'd better NOT go, as it was against the company's ethics policy.  What should I do?  Confused.
My partner and I had this same problem about 25 years ago.  Luckily, my partner was not in a position to award contracts.  We did go to the party, we enjoyed it immensely and we have felt a bit guilty ever since.  The easy answer is "No, you should not go". The goal of the contractor is to have you enjoy the party so much that the next time you have to decide who to contract with you will choose them.  That is exactly why it is wrong to go.  You should decide who to contract with based on their qualifications and price, not based upon how much fun their party was.  Now comes the difficult part. Your boss wants you to go. What would I do now?   I think that I would have a plausible excuse to give my boss, such as "My child is in a play that night", or "My parents have arranged a large birthday party that I can't miss", etc. and then bow out.

Dear Ruth:
I'm a foreman (forewoman, really) at a company that makes auto parts.  My supervisor told me that I was being too "high and mighty" with the people in my group, so I started being as friendly as possible with everyone.  Now, people are telling me that I've developed a reputation as a "party girl," and none of my people will take directions from me. What should I do?  Flummoxed.

Supervisors who are aloof and bark out orders are not liked. Likewise, supervisors who are cozy and over-friendly lose respect.  You need to find a balance between "high and mighty" and "party girl".   A supervisor does not giggle and flirt.  They know a little bit about their employees but do not take part in day-to-day personal life decisions.  They are amiable, but not cozy.  A supervisor dresses conservatively.  They are often serious.  They make decisions and they lead the group.  A supervisor is never the best friend of an employee.  It sounds like you just went a little too far over to friendly, and lost control of your group.  Tone it down a little.

Dear Ruth:
I own a small convenience store that stays open 24/7.  My store is in a safe location, and getting help is no problem, but none of my staff wants to work the late hours.  I went to each of them and asked if they would help, and they all said, "No."  Now, I have to work every night.  How do I get help covering these hours? Tired.

The problem is that, the way you asked each employee individually if they would work, you gave them each a chance to say "No".  You should never ask a question of your employees in a way that allows a person to say, "no" to required work.  This is their job and they have to do it.  Now you just have to get them to do their jobs, which may be a bit harder since you have recently allowed them to refuse to work.
It sounds like you are a good candidate to try "employee self scheduling". To have your staff self-schedule, you have to develop some work parameters.  Do you want each of them to work a certain number of hours each week?  Do you want more than one person working some of the hours?  Once you have determined these parameters and the schedule that you have to fill, get your staff all together at one time at a meeting.  Don't whine here, what you did before was your own fault. Simply state that you are starting a new system of scheduling. Explain to them the schedule parameters, explain to them that they have to cover all of the hours, and that you will now allow them to decide their schedule as a group.  Then leave the room.  They don't need you to help figure this out.  When they have the schedule done, they will come to get you.  Self-scheduling puts the control of the work schedule in the hands of the employees, where I think it belongs.  It encourages them to work as a group, and allows them flexibility in matching their work schedule to their private lives.  It also works well to have your staff find their own substitutes when they need them, just make sure that they tell you when they change the schedule.

When I first tried this technique, I had a teenager working for me who really did not want to work at all. I had a miserable time with the "Will you work Thursdays?" system.  The teenager was generally working about half of the hours of the other two staff members.  When I left the teenager and the other two staff members alone to work out the schedule themselves, the teenager ended up with an equal number of hours, and was happily scheduled to work some of the days that they had previously refused when I asked!

Dear Ruth:
I am the Chief Operating Officer for a manufacturing company with 500 employees.  I came up through the plant, so I know our products and our procedures inside and out.  We have one department whose products have gotten too many complaints for defects and late deliveries.  It seems as if everything in that department becomes a crisis, and the department manager is always asking me to step in to help solve these crises.  He and I have worked late into the night on countless occasions.  Again and again, I have explained the necessary changes.  I have written everything down in detail.  He is a really good person, and he is totally receptive to my advice.  Still, everything remains a crisis.  Why can't I get through to this manager?  Exhausted.

Have you ever thought that perhaps crises are what this manager likes?  I had the same scenario in my company, for seven long years.  When the problem manager finally left, I discovered that there were no more crises.  I then found quite a bit of evidence that many of the crises were contrived.  Items were purposely not ordered, files were hidden.  This person seems to want your attention.  In the short run, if you can work closely with them, say an hour a week, one-on-one, it may diffuse some of the need for a problem to occur in order to get your attention.  You should be documenting the work that you asked them to do, the methods that you used to get them to work, and what the results were.  After about 6 months of this documentation, sit down and read the file, then decide if this is working and if this person can actually do the job.  Often this type of person cannot remain a manager.

Dear Ruth:
I started my own consulting company based upon my 15 years' experience in the plastics industry.  My business has expanded to the point where I now have a staff of 10.  Originally, everything that I put out myself was on-time and nearly perfect, but now our quality and productivity are dropping so badly that I am frustrated to death!  Every day I walk into our workroom, look over what my people are doing, and just begin to yell.  I can't help it, I just "see red," and lose my self-control.  After I yell, it seems like everyone gets quiet and goes back to working hard, but their work isn't getting any better, and we are missing deadlines left and right!  Why can't my people do anything right? Red-Faced.

You are what I call a Belligerent Supervisor.  You yell first and ask questions later.  Such yelling is often misplaced, because you get mad before you have all of the facts.  This can upset your staff to the point that they may have problems staying motivated to work. The first step to correct yourself is a little exercise.  Try to keep quiet when you see problems, and wait a half day before you correct anyone. Next, start having meetings where you review deadlines with the entire staff.  Make sure that you ask lots of questions in the meetings and find out what types of problems they are having that might prevent meeting the deadlines.  Just announcing a deadline does no good if the staff does not have the supplies to complete the project.  Wait, ask questions, think about your staff.

Dear Ruth:
My friend and I have worked together in the same design office for the past 5 years.  Last month, she was promoted to become the supervisor over me and 3 others in our area.  What a monster she became!  Now, she expects me to bring her coffee, and she walks around like the queen of all she sees!  When she holds meetings, she expects everybody else to be on time, then she makes a grand entrance.  She takes everything that we do and puts her own name on it, before she passes it on to her boss.  I have told everyone to just wait, because I'm sure that her boss can see what she's up to.  Do you agree with me? Patient.

No, I doubt that her boss can see what she is up to.  I suspect that while she is being so regal to you, she is being very friendly with the boss, and bosses like the attention.  Handling these people is very difficult. Can you find another job under another supervisor? If not, you should be friendly to her, find out her patterns and try to stay under her radar.

Dear Ruth:
I have a staff of 20 people.  One of the people is over 65 years old.  She works very slowly, doing about half of the work of employees doing the same basic things.  I have talked to her on several occasions and told her that she has to speed up.  Each time she tells me that she is old, and she says that I am discriminating against her because of her age.  She implies that it is against the law to fire her.  Is it true that I cannot fire an old person?  Stymied.

Assuming that she is an "at will" employee, not one with a contract, it is true that you cannot fire a person because they are old.  Similarly, you cannot fire a person because you do not like their sex, pregnancy, race, religion, national origin, or disability.  BUT, it is also true that you can fire a person because they are not doing the job that you hired them to do.  I checked with Cynthia Stankiewicz, the small business contact person of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  She stated that each person, regardless of age, can be held to the same production standards.  Cynthia noted that you cannot ask an older person to do more than a younger person, and you must provide equal training.  You may also be required to accommodate individuals with disabilities if needed to reach the production standards.  Now comes another tricky part. If your employee alleges that they will file a complaint with the EEOC, and you fire them BECAUSE they said they would file a complaint, your response would be an unlawful act.  The issues to keep clear are that you must hold all employees to the same standard of work, you must tell an employee if they are not performing, you must give them a chance to improve and you need to document all of your interactions. Employers should follow their progressive disciplinary policies for all employees.  Any consideration of sex, pregnancy, race, religion, or national origin has no part in any discussion with your employees.  You need work to get done, that is all.  Cynthia suggested that employers check the small business section of the EEOC's website,, for more information on federal EEO laws.

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