Avoiding the “own goal” at work: 3 lessons from Women’s World Cup

On Sunday, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) soundly defeated Japan to claim the nation’s third World Cup championship. With this year’s Women’s World Cup breaking TV ratings expectations at every turn, it’s likely you or someone you know was glued to the tube as this spectacular victory unfolded. I know I was. And as I watched “el jogo bonito,” I was reminded of three simple lessons that translate well from the pitch to the office. Soccer World Cup

#1: Deal with the draw

When the groups were decided for this year’s World Cup last December, things didn’t look great for the USWNT. Although ranked No. 1, the USA drew Australia, Sweden, and Nigeria—affectionately called “the Group of Death” due to its having the highest cumulative FIFA points of any group. After group play, the USA had to overcome the upstart Colombians, the Chinese, and Germany to make its way to a rematch against 2011 World Cup winner Japan. This was hardly the “easy road” to victory. Rather than shrinking away from the steep climb, the USWNT welcomed the challenge and used it as motivation during training.

The same should apply to you when confronting difficult employee relations issues. The myriad challenges of managing personnel for any workforce can be daunting. Many times, we inherit the troublesome employees that another department or a previous HR manager didn’t want to deal with. Shying away from these employees or their problems will not make them go away. In fact, ignoring these problems will likely make them worse.

For example, say you have an employee whose production is severely lacking and has been for some time. Whenever you’ve tried to address the issue in a constructive way in the past, the employee gets defensive and makes a scene, which makes both you and the employee’s coworkers uncomfortable. So rather than proceeding past verbal warnings to a written discipline or performance improvement plan, you’ve decided to just sit on your hands and wait it out.

Perhaps, you’re hoping the employee’s performance will improve (miraculously) or he/she will find another job. But while your deft scheme of “wait and hope” may keep things quiet and cordial around the office, what you are really doing is telling the troublesome employee everything is OK with how they are performing now. Plus, you are sending the signal to your good employees that how they perform doesn’t matter either. Why should they keep giving extra effort if they can just be lazy and throw a hissy-fit to avoid consequences?

The point is, being an HR professional isn’t an easy job. That is why the other managers and C-level employees created your department—to deal with the tough issues. So, if you are faced with handling the “Employees of Death” at your company, take a tip from the USWNT and meet the challenge head-on.

#2: Avoid the “own goal”

Aside from the frequent flashes of brilliance, the Women’s World Cup also saw one of the most devastating sources of heartache in soccerthe “own goal.” With the game tied against Japan in the last minute of stoppage time, England defender Laura Bassett attempted to stop a cross by Japan by extending her right leg, only to see the ball deflect off her foot, over her goalkeeper’s head into the bottom of the cross bar, and fall across the line for a goal to Japan.

Unfortunately for England, this isn’t the first time the Brits have experienced a heartbreaking loss in the elimination rounds of a World Cup. (I’m talking to you, Diego Maradona.) What’s more, the resulting devastation wasn’t for a lack of effort. Indeed, had Bassett not reached out for the ball, it may very well have gone into the waiting feet of the Japanese striker for a one-on-one duel with the keeper. And had the ball hit Bassett’s foot at impact, it may have deflected out of bounds rather than into the goal, at least forcing the Japanese attack to reset for a corner.

The prospect of the “own goal” is no less real in the world of human resources. Try as you might to get a grasp on all the important issues in the world of HR, many situations require the help of a legal professional. A familiar illustration would be employee requests for accommodation. With the Americans with Disabilities Act’s loose definition of “disability” and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s aggressive stance on disability issues, employers might be quick to accept an employee’s accommodation request just to keep from being labeled discriminatory.

On the flip side, the employer might be too quick to reject an accommodation (or fail to entertain the request altogether) to rid itself of an employee who the employer thinks may be trying to “game the system.” Either way, failing to consider all of the pertinent factors in making this decision is the equivalent of sticking your foot out and hoping for the best. While you might get away with it, the consequences of a bad bounce can have real, long-term effects on you and your company. Instead, in these tricky situations, consult a neutral third-party or a trusted legal professional to help you set up your best course of action.

#3: Best defense is a good offense

If you’re an American, I hope you watched the World Cup final. Not only was it played just one day after the celebration of our nation’s Independence, it was freakin’ awesome! Within just the first 15 minutes, the United States jumped out to a 4-0 lead, mainly on the right and left feet of Carli Lloyd. Lloyd put the cherry on top of her hat-trick by chipping Japan’s goalie from just across the midfield stripe—MIDFIELD!

The American onslaught put the USWNT so far ahead of Japan that it was almost certain, even with nearly 60 minutes of play left, that the daughters of the land of the rising sun would not be able to overcome the deficit. And they weren’t. Despite Japan’s two-goal effort and relentless attack in the final 20 minutes, America captured its first World Cup title since 1999.

In the workplace, getting out ahead of your potential problems is the best way of ensuring you stay in the lead when it comes to common employee issues. You can start by making sure your employee handbook and employment policies are up to date. These policies are often affected by state and local laws, which are subject to change any time the legislature is in session, and often with less press. Others can be changed by agency rulemaking, without the necessity of new legislation.

Take, for instance, the U.S. Department of Labor’s recent announcement of their proposed amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA”) “white collar” exemption tests for executive, administrative, and professional employees. The proposed rule more than doubles the annual salary required for an employee to be considered exempt from overtime or minimum wage under the FLSA’s white collar exemptions. Such a rule likely will drastically affect many employers’ operations should it take effect in some form or another.

Employers must stay on top of these changes to avoid getting tripped up by changes in the law. A thorough review of your policies will make sure your company is in the best position to deal with new changes to the law. You also should make sure your workforce receives notice of any changes and that you train your supervisors on how to deal with the administration of any new policies. In the employment world, your supervisors’ actions can be imputed to the company, so it’s important they understand the important points of any new changes.Failing to ensure your workforce is adequately trained can nullify the impact of having gone through all the trouble to update your policies in the first place.

Lastly, audit your practices. Many business practices develop far beyond the watchful eye of the HR department out of a necessity to meat business needs. By continually auditing what your company actually does, you can make sure you are doing your part to prevent potential legal blunders that may arise from the daily grind.