Possibilities … Endless Possibilities

Yes, I know I went with a Marvel theme in my last column. But I’m the author, and that carries at least some privileges, so I’m going back to Marvel.

what if best practicesMarvel does make it easy, as they’ve been pumping out so much content lately. Their latest offering is What If…? an animated series that ponders how story lines would have been different if certain details had changed. For instance, what if a Hydra agent had interrupted the Steve Rogers super-serum experiment and Peggy Carter became the super soldier instead? Or, what if Doctor Strange lost his ever-loving mind? What if Thor came to Earth for an interplanetary rave? Most recently, what if Ultron won and made Vision into an interdimensional maniac? Set all of this stuff to Jeffrey Wright’s dulcet-toned narration, and you get some entertaining mind-benders that lead us into the season finale next week.

“What if ? …” is a question employment lawyers ask all the time. If only X had not done Y, which led to Z, then client A could have avoided so much trouble at the hands of former employee B.

As one example, I recall a hard-fought disability discrimination case from years ago. The plaintiff fell at work when startled by a small animal, which led to medical leave, and when the employer ended the relationship as part of a reduction in force, the employee sued. After years of administrative investigations, discovery, motions practice, and trial, co-defense counsel and I were moments away from an oral argument. Feeling a bit philosophical, I turned to my co-counsel and pondered, “Does it occur to you that we are sitting here today because a squirrel happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?” “What if?” indeed.

“What if ? …” may be the best rhetorical tool in an HR professional’s kit. Just about anyone can spot a risky situation—more often, though, the trick for an HR manager is how to successfully steer a colleague away from that risky course of action. I suggest you use this device to spur your managers to take a close look at the consequences of the various courses of action.

For example, after a particularly poor performance review, a manager may be at the end of his or her string with an underperforming employee. You certainly agree that the performance is not up to par. However, now is the time for you to raise “What if ? …” What if we fire this employee now, just a few weeks after the person complained about the manager? What if we used an objective performance improvement plan instead? How might things turn out differently?

Of course, the correct answer for these dilemmas will not be to wait in all circumstances. Still, asking “What if ? …” is a great way to engage your people in the very conversation they need to be having. What if we fire this person now while you are most frustrated? What if we let you sleep on it? And ultimately, “What if we get sued? Are we well positioned to defend our decision with documents and testimony?”

I encourage you to go back and read this column again. You’ll notice that an incredible number of my sentences end in question marks. As HR professionals, though, your role puts you in an uncomfortable position between problems in the here and now and the unknown consequences of today’s decisions well into the future. So far, most of the What If…? episodes seem to caution that changes today will always lead to disaster in the future, but that’s not always true in my experience.

When the next employee issue comes across your desk, think of several “what ifs?”—you may find that your decisions are a bit sharper and that you can plot a course to a better result in the future.

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