HR Issues

December 19, 2011

Written by: Will Lucero, PHR

Attempting to clearly define the difference between “management style” and “harassment” can be very difficult, depending on whether you’re the complainant or the defendant. These topics could certainly open the door to a wide range of discussion, but I’m going to focus on how they are interpreted by employees, employers, and the EEOC.

I have visited with many people from different companies, to learn that a person’s management style and harassment are viewed differently by everyone. Most employees complaining about harassment feel they are targeted by management. Most employers are bothered and insulted when accused of harassment. They simply want to extinguish the complaints, whether it’s by proving otherwise through an investigation, or many “experienced” employers simply default to management style.

Wiki defines Management Style as, “Characteristic ways of making decisions and relating to subordinates.” Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt further developed the idea of management style, arguing “the style of leadership is dependent on the prevailing circumstance; therefore leaders should exercise a range of management styles and deploy them as appropriate”.

Webster’s dictionary defines Harassment as, “to annoy persistently; to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.”

Scenario #1

A high performance employee files a complaint because she feels like she is being harassed by her supervisor. She complains that the supervisor sends emails at all times of the day or night, in bold, enlarged, and colorful texts. Many times the emails are sent with unreasonable timeliness for completion, and sent within minutes of each other. She feels that the supervisor is requesting information that isn’t vital to the business, and feels the supervisor is simply “creating more work” than is necessary. She says she feels like she is being picked on, the tone of the emails is always threatening or “loud”, and has been ongoing for a long time.

The company’s investigator responds, “You are not being harassed; this is just the supervisor’s style, and every manager has his/her own style. The supervisor sends these emails to everyone.”

Scenario #2

A District Manager visits one of his store managers more often than other stores, and always insults the manager in a loud voice. The store manager has been in his position for many years, is one of the oldest managers in the company, and feels the younger manager is harassing him. The store manager is ultimately terminated, and files a complaint with the EEOC alleging harassment based on age discrimination.

The investigator determines that this is just the District Manager’s style, and speaks to all store managers the same way.

The EEOC investigates the manager’s complaint,and concludes that since the district manager treated all the managers the same way, ultimately terminating many of them, there wasn’t reason to believe the manager was discriminated against based on age.

“Red flags” in the first scenario:

Was the manager trying to “annoy persistently?” Were the emails just “a way of relating to subordinates?” Why were emails sent during all hours of the day and night? Why were so many emails sent? Did the font size, style, and color “shout out” a message? Were the timelines reasonable? Has this behavior been on-going?

“Red flags” in the second scenario:

Was the DM “trying to annoy persistently?” Was the DM just trying to relate to the employee?” Why would the DM insult the manager? Was it on-going? Why was the manager terminated after having been in his position for many years? Did he not know how to do his job? Why were so many other managers terminated by the same DM? Why did the DM feel the need to use a loud voice?

I don’t support either of the results because I believe management should always be professional, even in the most challenging situations. Managers should refrain from personalizing employee issues because personal feelings most often negatively influence the situation. When managers make an issue personal, emotions become involved, then the wrong messages are sent, and poor decisions are made. Decisions should be made with the best interest of the company in mind, aside from personal feelings and emotions.

When employees personalize issues, they become sensitive and threatened, and ultimately the situation results in the employee becoming un-coachable and unable to perform to his/her full potential.

Although it may not be easy, managers that have been accused of harassment must be skilled enough to put their own personal feelings aside, acknowledge the employee’s feelings, and work toward a relationship that most benefits the company.

Granted, as managers we cannot control how people feel all of the time, but by handling ourselves in a professional manner we limit the opportunity for harassment claims. Effective managers understand that they cannot manage all employees the same way, and must use their “soft skills” or interpersonal skills to get the results they want. Management is the science of “getting people together to accomplish desired goals.”

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