Monday, May 16, 2022

Personnel Issues are Process Issues

Actions to take: Think about personnel issues the same way you think about any other imperfection in the workplace. If it is big enough, do anything necessary to fix it. For everything else, do the cost-benefit analysis of whether it is work fixing. Attempt to fix issues with a bit of feedback or conversation. However, stop yourself from overcommitting resources (your time and energy) to fixing problems that, ultimately, are not that important. When your organization disagrees with you about how big a problem is (by, for instance, preventing you from introducing disciplinary action), practice professional detachment by accepting this as just one more imperfect process.


This post will give you a tool for mentally dealing with the fact that things often don't end up the way you would like when it comes to personnel issues.

Before we talk about personnel issues, let's talk bout process issues for a moment. All work process are imperfect. Take something as simple as shelving books at a library. On the micro level, each shelver is getting better all the time. They catch onto little nuances about the shelving system and make their everyday work more efficient. Shelving also improves on the macro level. Libraries are constantly tweaking their cataloging system to make book location more intuitive and accessible. Organizations at every level of success in every industry continuously work toward improvement. Even excellent processes can be improved upon.

The reverse is true as well. Some subpar processes stay the same for years and years. I am positive that you can think of several processes that have obvious fixes or improvements that never got implemented. For me, it will always be the morning newspapers at one of the first libraries I worked for. Every morning, we prepped the newspapers before setting them out for the day. Included in that process, we stamped them with the library's name and logo to identify it as the property of the library. We stamped every section of every newspaper with this property mark. 

In my eyes, this was a totally useless step. Theft had never been a problem, and we threw out old newspapers after a few months anyway. One stamp on the front, fine. But who is stealing the Arts and Fashion section of the local paper? I saw it as purely wasted time. 

I wasn't considering transition costs back then. Yes, maybe it was wasted time, but it was a small amount of wasted time. Everyone was used to doing it this way. The effort it would take to convince everyone that theft was not going to be an issue would have been a huge hassle after years and years of saying theft is the reason we do this stamping. There's also the opportunity cost to think about. We're all busy all the time. If we spend time fixing this issue, what else might have we been doing with that time? Probably something more meaningful than eliminating a few minutes of stamping each morning. 


As a boss, you need to recognize that personnel issues function in exactly the same way. Major problems need to be corrected, and it is your job to see those issues through to completion. But some issues are simply not worth the time and energy it would take. Your employee says discriminatory things to coworkers? You must do anything necessary to fix that problem. Your employee tends to chit-chat a little too long about weekend plans on Friday? Put a little energy into correcting it, but let it go eventually if it is an isolated issue.

This post is something of a spiritual successor to the previous two posts about the role of Human Resources. Sometimes, you will be convinced that a personnel issue is major. Major enough to consider termination. HR or the powers that be above you keep pulling you back. Every time things feel as though they are coming to a head, actions stall out. You're left with a problem employee that you believe needs to be let go. These are the times when it is the most important to think of personnel issues as process issues. 

Think again of transition costs and opportunity costs. The transition cost of solving a personnel issue comes in the form of your time, energy, and frustration while trying to have productive feedback conversations with the employee (and, potentially, a bunch of side conversations with HR and your boss if the issue). Transition costs also come in the form of the employee's reaction, their resistance, their frustration, their being distracted from other work. The opportunity costs are all the other things you could be doing with that time. In terms of achieving outcomes, there is fair evidence that focusing your time and energy on high performers (i.e. accelerating "processes" that are already working) is more beneficial than focusing on poor performers (i.e. fixing "imperfect processes").


Do not get emotionally caught up in feeling the need to fix personnel issues. It is easy to do. Personnel issues are, well, personal. How often do we have major emotional reactions when the organization has some dumb, subpar process though? Yea, unnecessary paperwork is a waste of time, but are you having heated arguments or losing sleep over it? Probably not. 

Managing people is important. But it is still just a job. Practice a little professional detachment, and convince yourself that a certain amount of imperfection in your workplace is acceptable.

If you push yourself to think about personnel issues as just another part of the process, you will have far more success coping with the frustration of unchecked problems. Yes, we want to always be improving. Yes, we must address any significant issues. Yes, we should see if most issues can be solved quickly with a little casual feedback. No, we are not capable of making absolutely every issue vanish. And that's okay.

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