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Teaching Supervisors to Listen Is Key

Training your workforce from top to bottom is important so that everyone has a clear understanding of your company’s commitment to providing a fair and productive environment for all employees.

And while it’s true that we can explain the various employment laws and reiterate that they require compliance from all of your employees (and that compliance is best obtained through repeated, comprehensive, and comprehensible training), there’s one critical activity that only you and your supervisors can perform: listening.

Let us explain it to you this way. It rains before it floods. Small tremors precede large earthquakes. Temperatures drop before the first snowflake falls. Just as nature provides signals of impending changes in the weather, employees usually send signals to their employers that problems are developing or that trouble is brewing in the workplace.

The key is to listen and watch for those signals and respond before the situation gets out of hand. Here are some real-world examples in which listening is the first step toward prevention.

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Workplace violence
Bob gently teases Jane about her personal appearance on a regular basis. She seems to take his teasing in stride, but one day she smiles and laughingly tells him that if he doesn’t stop teasing her, she’s going to speak to her husband, Jake, about his conduct. And, she sweetly adds, “Jake really looks out for me. You know, he’s the jealous type, with a hot temper. There’s really no telling what he might do to you.”

Do Bob’s comments constitute sexual harassment? Does Jake pose a threat to his safety? Could workplace violence occur because of Bob’s treatment of Jane? Maybe; maybe not. The point is, the exchange between Bob and Jane shouldn’t be ignored by their co-workers, managers, or supervisors.

Employees should be trained to listen for danger signs and report them to management. The company should respond by reminding Bob that it’s inappropriate to tease Jane in the workplace even if his conduct doesn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment. And Jane should be reminded that casual threats of violence will be taken seriously even if it was reasonably clear that she was joking. Employees must understand that workplace violence is no laughing matter.

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Patricia supervises 15 employees who work in the company’s call center. Martha has been one of her outstanding employees for nearly eight years. Recently, however, she has been arriving late for her shift and taking longer breaks than usual. She has also been caught dozing at her keyboard.

On the same day Patricia decides to discipline Martha for performance issues, she learns from one of Martha’s friends that Martha recently was diagnosed with a serious illness for which she must take medication that causes acute fatigue. Martha hasn’t mentioned anything about her condition.

So should Patricia go ahead and discipline her? Should she ignore the information from Martha’s co-worker because it’s “hearsay” or discount it because it’s unsubstantiated, secondhand knowledge?

The answer to the first question is pretty straightforward. Misconduct is misconduct is misconduct. If Martha has failed to perform her job without providing a medical excuse (or another satisfactory explanation), then she’s justifiably subject to discipline.

The second question is a little trickier to answer. On the one hand, it would be inappropriate for Patricia to ask specific questions about Martha’s illness. On the other hand, she has been notified (albeit by a secondhand source) that Martha’s job performance has suffered because of an illness. Consequently, she should ask Martha to speak to someone in HR to determine whether the company should accommodate her under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or offer to place her on intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The point is, Patricia shouldn’t close her ears to the report she received about Martha’s illness. Employers are required to do their best to comply with federal and state employment laws, even when employees don’t utter the magic words “ADA accommodation” or “intermittent FMLA leave.”

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Safety and workers’ compensation issues
Everyone knows employers can’t retaliate against someone by firing him for making a workers’ comp claim. But what if a supervisor overhears other employees relentlessly teasing an employee who has filed a claim for workers’ comp? Or ribbing him because they suspect his work-related injury is less serious than he claims? Should the supervisor ignore those taunts?

In a word, no. If teasing unreasonably interferes with an injured employee’s ability to do his job and his supervisor sanctions it by remaining silent and allowing it to continue, then he could argue later that he was forced to quit. He would have ammunition for a “constructive discharge” claim, which would allow him to sue for wrongful termination.

Here’s another example. What if a supervisor overhears employees discussing the proper method for cleaning up a small chemical spill. He may decide the situation doesn’t require his attention or any further investigation because his employees have it under control.

But what if they haven’t received the right training for cleaning up chemical spills? What if they don’t know where the material safety data sheet for the chemical is kept and they’re injured when they try to clean it up improperly?

If the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigates the incident, one of the key questions it will ask is whether the supervisor knew about the chemical spill and whether the injury could have been prevented by employer intervention. If OSHA finds out the supervisor heard about the spill before anyone was injured but took no action, you can reasonably assume it’s going to issue one or more citations to the employer.

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Bottom line: Training alone isn’t enough
No matter how much high-quality training employers provide for their employees, things still will go wrong in the workplace. We can’t predict everything that might happen, and neither can you. But experience has taught us that the vast majority of workplace problems can be prevented if supervisors simply pay attention to what their employees say and do — even when employees don’t think they’re telling you anything.

Sure, there’s no substitute for training. But there’s no substitute for detecting problems early, either. And for that to happen, you must teach your employees to see and hear what goes on around them and to report any questionable behavior or come forward with any issues you should address.

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