Saturday, November 23, 2013

Armchair Managering

One of my favorite blogs to read is Ask A Manager. She's non-profit which is a great perspective, but she also answers lots of questions from the for-profit sector. A lot of her columns are answers to job hunters, but a good portion are HR and managerial issues.

My favorite recurring theme is how often people ask "is this legal?" Things are often bad practice, but rarely illegal. She actually did an entire column listing all the things she and another blogger have been queried on as to legal status. Read it, it's amazing.

Earlier this week she posted a great question that I've been thinking about a lot. And making my husband discuss. And my mother. And various other people in my life. I'm going to go ahead and quote the letter, but not the AAM answer or her reader comments. Her readers are intelligent and insightful and the comments are one of the highlights of her blog. I firmly encourage you to go read her answer and the readers comments.

I am a manager of a small HVAC service company. One of our service technicians is refusing to enter any residence where a teenager is home alone, even though we have scheduled this appointment with the parent, and although they can’t be there, their 14-year-old will let him in. This will be the second time in a week that this technician has left the residence without fixing the problem, causing me to get an irate customer on the phone. When our scheduler asks him why he left, his response is that he feels uncomfortable being alone in the house with a female teenager. This technician has three daughters, and I think he is letting his paranoia about his daughters interfere with his judgment.

Our company has protocol in place that if a customer is not home, a technician isn’t to enter a residence, without prior approval by the customer. Our service techs are licensed by the state, with background checks performed annually. In the 9 years I have managed this company, I have never run across this before.

I am having a meeting with this technician next week, and I want to make sure I say the right thing. Several times he has commented that the company cannot hold it against him if he doesn’t want to do something that makes him uncomfortable (this includes not working overtime on occasion if asked, going into any home with mold, and now the above reason.)

I know that we can certainly let him go, but we are a small company and he has been with us for three years now. I’m not willing to do this, until I have addressed these problems, and try to come up with something that will make us both “comfortable.” If this cannot be achieved, then I guess I’ll have no other choice but to let him go.

Any help you you can provide in the way of things I might say to him will be greatly appreciated.

Okay, the way I see it there are two distinct issues here.

1. There are some legitimate policy and safety concerns.

2. The employee believes they can dictate the terms of their job.

Let's start with number one. A lot of the commenters said, and I agree, that it seems odd to allow an adult serviceman into the house with only a minor present. Beyond the obvious false accusation fears (which even if disproved can effectively ruin your life), if there is a change in service needed, more work, additional charges, you usually need the signature of an adult to authorize it and any payments. Some companies want payment immediately and some will bill later.

The last time I let an HVAC guy repair our furnace he wanted my signature twice. First I signed to authorize him to work. Second I signed to authorize the payment on the credit card. A few years ago (in 2006 actually), my grandma sent me into town to pick up some food she ordered for a family dinner. She sent me with her checkbook with the top three checks signed. That worked because it is a town of about 200 people and my grandmother was their queen. I'm thinking that won't work with your average HVAC guy.

The AAM commenters indicate that a number of major companies (like cable companies) have hard and fast policies requiring an adult to be in the residence for service. I'm not sure since I have no minor children to foist repair duties onto, but if I was told that, I wouldn't blink. Instituting a policy like this would be a completely reasonable choice for this company.

I have never been a service person fixing up people's homes, but I would imagine that they are often exposed to various toxins. Having masks available to your techs to use at their disposal would seem appropriate.

Second issue: the employee believes they can dictate the terms of their job. This to me is a MUCH bigger issue. Employers should be amenable to talking to employees about difficulties they're having and adjusting policies where appropriate, but at the end of the day if you're told something is your job, do it. If you can't, quit or be fired. You don't get to not do things because they make you "uncomfortable" and then expect your employer to not penalize you. That isn't the way the world works.

Also HVAC is kinda a big deal. I've had to call in for an emergency repair on a Sunday in January in Alaska when it was -8 and the heater stopped working. (Side note: I had to call 3 companies before I got one that had a free tech to send to my house. He spent 20 minutes working, charged $180, and was on the phone the entire time scheduling techs for other calls. Librarians, we are in the wrong field.) If I was not told that there was a requirement to have an adult home (and it sounds like this company is already emphasizing that someone must be home when they do the scheduling) and then the work was refused I would be really upset.

Let's look at this conversation could have been handled.

Tech: I'm uncomfortable going into this house because the only one home is a 15 year-old girl.
Boss: Really? No one's ever mentioned that before.
Tech: Yeah, a false accusation could ruin my life and your company.
Boss: Fair point. But I talked to her mom when she scheduled the call and she said that only her daughter could be home. It's your last call on a Saturday, go ahead and do it since the mother authorized you to be there with her daughter, we'll talk about it on Monday.

Then on Monday there would be a discussion and a potential change in policy to be emphasized to customers when scheduling appointments. Or perhaps all your company wants to do is get confirmation from the parents that it is okay to work in the house alone with a minor. I think that's a risky policy, but a company could do it and require a tech to do so. However if the tech had still walked away from those jobs, write it up. Hopefully you have a policy about how many write ups = disciplinary issues or termination.

Ideally you create an environment where management is responsive to concerns from employees and employees feel free to bring them to management.

Another potential conversation:

Tech: The last home I was called out to had some really nasty black mold all over the place. I can't do that.
Boss: Yeah, we see all sorts of stuff in people's houses. (Shakes head sympathetically). But we still have to do a job. I'm going to get you some protective masks to wear whenever you feel they are necessary.

And the overtime thing: it's legal to require overtime. It's legal to hire a person for two years and never require overtime and then when your company grows start requiring overtime in the third year. (I don't know that is the case here, just making a point.) If the employee doesn't like it, they can find another job. Lots of people work schedules that aren't ideal, it's life. This presumes of course that you are paying them any legally required overtime pay.

For years my mother was in charge of payroll at a major company and I didn't see her as often as I liked (or she probably liked) during January/W-2 season, but on the other side her company offered her the flexibility to be a room mom and take off in the middle of the day to throw parties for our classes.

So this is my last example conversation, presuming everyone is a reasonable person:
Boss: Okay I have three more calls for you to go to. I'm authorizing overtime pay.
Tech: WHOA! I'm done for the day. I've promised to take my wife out for a date.
Boss: Sorry about this, but it's the first bad cold snap of the year and everyone's heater is breaking. I need you to work these three calls.
Tech: Fine. I can use the overtime money to take my wife out to that B&B she likes next weekend instead.

I think this entry really resonated with me because it is a management issue I've struggled with a lot. I want to be open and accommodating. I ABSOLUTELY want to hear my employees concerns and work with them towards solutions. And every now and then it just comes down to "I'm the boss and you need to do this" but it's always better to try to talk it out and not have to flat out say that. I'm not perfect at this, still working at it.


Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to your opinion regarding the following.

My job title is "Analyst/Programmer," which is intentionally vague on the part of my employers. My responsibilities lie chiefly in software engineering, but the dictates of my job can vary widely depending on the project. While most responsibilities fall in the realm of "computer-y things," most days are episodic, Quantum Leap-esque scenarios where I enter tiny, messy universes and do battle with non-determinism and unruly natives.

Frequently, I disagree with my managers (plural) on the subject of computer security. A citizen of the Internet for 15+ years, I have a healthy dose of hyper-paranoia, the degree to which none of my managers share. An example situation will go like this:

Manager(s): (enter cubicle) "A/P, we'd like to impress the executives by making this data available on their iPhones."
A/P: "Okay. Let's see... [goes on to explain a lengthy, involved method by which this can be done securely despite the inherently unsafe idea]."
Manager(s): "That's unacceptable. This shouldn't be that hard."
A/P: "Well, making it any easier will expose critical architecture to the malicious outside world. Bad things will happen."
Manager(s): "Somebody's figured this out before, A/P. You'll figure it out." (meaningful glance, exit cubicle)

It is perhaps a different discomfort than dealing with 15-year olds, but there is discomfort nonetheless. I'm asked to introduce attack vectors to my organization despite my better professional judgment. It is certainly within the dictates of my job to provide my analysis on a subject, but if my answers are ignored, it is expected of me to follow orders despite my misgivings.

My initial thought is to get such requests in writing and swallow the pill. My managers are likelier to consider refusal to do a task as insubordination rather than my abiding by professional ethics. Indeed, it is they who are introducing the risk by making promises to executives, however, I will be the technical staff that implements the risk, and would share in the blame.

I can see a "I'm the boss and you need to do this" policy working as long as the boss is right. In my situation, however, this erodes my confidence in my manager's ability to make technical and rational decisions, as well as my assumptions as to their trust in me. It also makes me less likely to voice my concerns in the event that such issues arise again.

- A/P

Unknown said...

That's a really interesting dilemma. You're right to be uncomfortable.

I'd probably write up a multi-tiered proposal. It can still be bullet points, quick, one page memo style.

Option A
Basic Details
Technical difficulty both for you as the a/p (estimated time to implement) and for the user

Option B
Basic Details
Technical difficulty (estimated time to implement) and for the user

Option C
(same as above)

Option C can also be a detail of why this shouldn't be done at all on mobile if that is what you feel.

Be very clear on the risks, over emphasize them. Make it obvious that any trade offs in security that will come from ease of use.

At the bottom of these brief "levels of security" proposals do a one paragraph summary of what you recommend and why. Make them answer you in writing.

It probably won't change their minds but you will have the memo proving you warned them about it. And it might at least make them stop and think. Not a perfect solution, but it is the best I have right now. Still a crummy situation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply. I wish I could say that producing those option documents would sway their opinion, but by the time they've talked to me the decision has already been made. It may or may not be construed as me wasting their time, or going against their decision.

Thankfully, I think I've got a technical solution around the human problem described. It's not always the case. I'll just have to remember to be (T)hankful when I'm afforded it.

- A/P