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Learn Good HR Practices from Sports Superstars

As you struggle through the complexities of HR management, did you ever think that guidance was available in a most unlikely place — the sports section of the morning newspaper? Reading about Minnesota‘s sports superstars can provide valuable insight into the motivation and behavior of the employees you work with every day. Let’s look at some examples.

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Brett Favre
Have you ever had employees tell you they’re retiring soon, but “soon” never comes? What about employees who quit but then change their minds before you’ve even had a chance to process the paperwork? If you’ve encountered one or both of those scenarios, you’re in good company with football’s Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings.

Quarterback Brett Favre kept the Packers guessing after the end of each season by hinting that maybe, just maybe, he was going to hang up his cleats and not return next year. Green Bay began to plan for his retirement by devoting valuable draft picks and resources to bringing in possible successors, only to have Favre finally decide that he would come back.

After a few seasons of that drama, the Packers finally announced that they were taking Favre at his word and they installed Aaron Rodgers as their new quarterback. When Favre then decided to “unretire,” he found Packers’ management unreceptive, and he ultimately was traded to the New York Jets.

After a season with the Jets, Favre retired again, at least for a few months until the Minnesota Vikings came calling. The Vikings signed him to lead them in what they hoped would be a march to the Super Bowl. When that march ended one game from the finish line, Favre headed back home for yet another off-season of retirement speculation.

Is there a Brett Favre on your team? If you have an employee who has indicated he will retire “in the spring” or has given you a retirement date but seems to be hedging a bit, you don’t have to sit idly by while he eventually gets around to finalizing his plans. An employee who has set a date for retirement, firm or otherwise, has told you he doesn’t plan to be with you very long, and you’re entitled to rely on that information.

Talk to the employee to get a more definite idea of what he has in mind. Once you learn the timetable, you can begin the process of seeking a replacement, something that’s of particular importance if the employee holds a key position in your organization.

Obviously, you shouldn’t simply approach all of your older workers and grill them about their plans, nor should you rely too much on their vague speculations about retiring someday. Doesn’t everybody have the occasional (or even frequent) thought about what life might be like away from the pressure cooker of work?

However, if an employee has progressed beyond the daydream stage and is beginning to make some real plans, you have the right to do so as well. Then, if you have taken active steps and expended some resources in reliance on his projected retirement and he changes his mind, you’re in a position to say, “Sorry, that’s not an option anymore.”

A similar approach is justified for an employee who has resigned. That employee has indicated that she doesn’t want to work for you anymore, and you are entitled to rely on that. Even if she tries to rescind her resignation or come back after a few days because she changed her mind, it’s clear that she’s ambivalent at best about working for your company. You deserve something more than that. Certainly, you can let her come back if you wish, but you can also choose not to.

The same is true for the impulsive quitter who, for example, walks out after receiving a disciplinary warning but comes back the next day saying that he just needed to “blow off some steam.” You may tell him that he isn’t welcome back and that his resignation is final. After all, you certainly have the right to expect employees not to storm out of work because they’re angry about something; you’re entitled to have employees who show more commitment to the organization.

The employee may argue with you, claiming that you never formally “accepted” his resignation or that his termination hasn’t yet been “processed.” Stand your ground — resignations don’t have to be “accepted” (can you really “reject” a resignation and force an employee to stay against his will anyway?), and paperwork is just the formality of documenting things that have already occurred.

You want to be consistent and nondiscriminatory when responding to employees under these circumstances, and you certainly need to observe any company policies that might apply. However, you don’t need to sit and wait for your Brett Favre to decide what to do when you can go out and draft another quarterback.

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Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins exemplifies the kind of employee everybody seeks. He’s a top performer (he was the 2009 MVP for the American League), he’s a mature and responsible ambassador for the organization, and he brings in the customers. He also is in the enviable position of being a free agent after this season, and all of the Twins’ primary competitors would love to hire him away.

Nobody has said the Twins don’t appreciate Mauer or that he feels they don’t. Indeed, the evidence seems to indicate that they have a great relationship. What about you and your Joe Mauer? Is there an employee in your organization who consistently performs at an excellent level? Do you just take it for granted that he’s happy, challenged, and not thinking about leaving, or have you taken steps to ensure that your MVP understands how much you value his efforts?

Everybody in HR knows that difficult employees take up a disproportionate amount of management time. We also know, however, that the departure of a key performer or high producer can be devastating to an organization, especially if it’s caused by something that could have been avoided.

Granted, times are tough and financial rewards aren’t as available as they used to be. Nevertheless, be sure to pay just as much, if not more, attention to your big hitters as you pay to the slackers who aren’t playing at a major league level. After all, employment at will is just another form of free agency, and our stars are always available to be signed away to other teams.

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Al Jefferson
“Big Al” was the key ingredient in the package the Timberwolves received when they traded Kevin Garnett two seasons ago. Jefferson proved to be an astute addition to the deal as he powered his way to the basket on a regular basis and led the T-Wolves in scoring during his first season and for part of last season until he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

This season, Jefferson has returned from his injury to find a changed management team, a different coach, and a roster full of new teammates. His knee still bothers him as he tries to adjust to a revised scheme that relies less on his scoring ability. In short, this season has been more of a struggle than he has been used to, and it got worse last month when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI) on his way home after a game. The team suspended him for two games, both of which they lost.

Nobody is saying that Jefferson’s DWI indicates anything deeper than a serious mistake made by a young man. However, it’s a similar scenario to what we sometimes see in the workplace. Sooner or later, most employers are faced with an employee who had been effective and seemingly happy at work but is now having performance problems or behavioral issues. She used to get along with her coworkers, but now those relationships are strained and difficult.

Sometimes the reasons for such a change are apparent. A new supervisory relationship or different job responsibilities can have a negative effect. More often, however, the reasons aren’t very clear, presumably because they have their origins in the employee’s personal life. Perhaps there’s some marital strain, a family illness, money problems, or another equally challenging issue. As the employer, you may not know the cause (you may never know it), and to a substantial degree, it isn’t your responsibility to know why an employee’s performance has declined.

It is vital, however, that you remain focused on addressing the employee’s job performance. Presumably, you aren’t a doctor or a psychologist, but even if you are, avoid trying to diagnose the employee’s problems. If you begin suggesting reasons why she is having trouble at work (e.g., “I think you may be depressed” or “I just know you have a drinking problem“), you run the risk of convincing her (and a judge or jury) that you perceive her as disabled. That might result in protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that otherwise might not exist.

As the employer, you should be concerned with the employee’s job performance and behavior at work. The reasons underlying her performance or behavior are generally not relevant, at least not until she divulges a reason that might trigger further obligation on your part.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you must be insensitive to an employee’s struggles. If a worker is behaving in a way that seems unusual, you can tell her that you might be able to help. You might inform her about your employee assistance plan or other help available through your benefit package. You might let her know that you can direct her to other resources for assistance, or at least give her the name of a local agency that can get her started in the search for help.

Again, you don’t want to diagnose her problems or rationalize away her job performance. Whatever the cause, she needs to perform and behave in an appropriate and satisfactory manner at work. However, you may be able to help her get on track toward overcoming that obstacle.

Again, Al Jefferson’s DWI may have been nothing more than a one-time thing that he can use as an important life lesson. If there’s something more going on, the Timberwolves will likely offer help and guidance to get him back to the level of job performance he exhibited when he led the team and played like an All Star. You can do that for your Al Jefferson as well.

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Adrian Peterson
Enough time has passed since the Vikings stumbled on the road to the Super Bowl that we can begin to learn some valuable lessons from that game. One of those lessons comes from the Vikings’ treatment of star running back Adrian Peterson, whose penchant for fumbling the ball in that final game (and during the rest of the season) brings to mind the value of the basic tenets of the progressive/corrective discipline that many of us use in our organizations.

After the game, many fans called for the Vikings to trade or cut Peterson because of his difficulties holding onto the ball at critical times. HR professionals probably cringed when they heard those comments since in many respects they mirrored the cries of many a supervisor who simply gets fed up with an employee’s errors and wants him to be terminated immediately without applying any interim measures.

The Vikings, on the other hand, applied a standard corrective disciplinary approach by announcing that they would review the circumstances leading to Peterson’s fumbles and then seek ways to help him overcome the problem.

Like any other employee who begins to exhibit some performance difficulties, Peterson will receive some retraining and coaching to bring him back to the level of production he demonstrated earlier in his career. If that doesn’t work, perhaps the Vikings will employ other progressive disciplinary techniques, such as fining him (warning) or benching him (suspension), before resorting to moving him off the roster (termination).

After all, they, like you, have invested substantial time and resources in their employee, and they know that it’s far more efficient and effective to work with the employees you have than to begin the recruitment process again. Even a Hall of Fame employee can have some fumbles along the way.

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Game Plan
As you can see, HR management mirrors other aspects of our society. Lessons can be learned from many different sources, and if you are on the watch for these opportunities, even in the sports pages, your team will come out the winner.