Taking a bite out of bad managers

HR needs to recognize the bad apples and stop the rot

Spotting and stopping the “bad apple” manager from spoiling precious human resources is an ongoing challenge. HR needs a multi-pronged attack to stop the rot before stress, attrition and reduced productivity are the norm.

The bad apple manager has many guises, some easier to recognize than others. Blandness, inability to make decisions and abdication of responsibility are just as challenging as the more obvious bad management behaviours — such as being a control freak, bullying and political spin doctoring.

At a human level, bad management increases stress and anxiety, and for some employees it can become so acute it prevents them from attending work. Absence from work has a direct financial impact on employers, lowers productivity and increases workload for remaining staff.

Is there a problem?

How can an employer tell if it has any bad apple managers? Absence figures are a good starting point. HR can use these figures to measure the effectiveness of managers and HR policies. However, keep in mind that certain professions report greater stress, regardless of management. For example, shift workers were more likely to report work stress than other workers, according to a study by Statistics Canada released in 2007.

Other objective measures include staff churn, leadership feedback and employee survey scores. If these measures have been set up and implemented effectively, they can give HR meaningful insight into what the work environment is really like. Although no single measure can pinpoint and help eradicate bad apple managers, a combination of measures and realistic targets enable good managers to be recognized and give bad managers no place to hide.

American Express’s call centre in the United Kingdom takes the health of employees seriously. A quarterly team climate survey feeds into an annual employee survey and the results are included in each manager’s goals, all the way to the top. The message is simple — how a manager treats her team is reflected in her appraisal, so she had better get it right.

Leadership feedback processes, including 360-degree feedback, highlight weak management. Clearly defined leadership behaviours allow employees to objectively rate their managers and provide a common language for describing what is acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour.

Solving the problem

What does an organization do with bad apples once they’ve been identified? There are the usual HR tools, such as disciplinary procedures and training to fill any related gaps in management skills or experience. But the key for improving the working relationship is to separate the behaviour from the person. It is possible to be a great person and a bad boss, and keeping that knowledge at the core of any HR intervention will increase the likelihood of success.

There are a few simple questions that can determine which approach to take. Is the bad behaviour temporary or ongoing? Is it with an individual or with the world at large? Is it related to one type of task or many tasks?

If the behaviour is temporary, then a discreet discussion may be all that’s required. If it’s ongoing, what incentives, tools and support exist for managers who make the effort to address poor behaviour?

If the conflict exists between an individual and the manager, then some arbitration may increase mutual understanding and prevent future clashes. If the problem is widespread, assess the manager’s ability and will to close any gaps.

If there is a task-specific problem, the manager may be covering up her lack of skill or experience by bad behaviour, so maybe it’s time for specific training. If there are widespread problems with many tasks, the role may no longer suit the person and she’d be better off in another position.

How about stopping the rot before it starts? “Poka-yoke” is a Japanese term common in the manufacturing industry that means “foolproofing” — designing processes so it’s impossible to make a mistake that carries on down the production process. Does the recruitment process bear up to such scrutiny? Do the bad apples get in easily or is company culture turning them bad?

Spotting and stopping a bad apple from rotting a company will keep HR specialists busy. Solutions range from stopping the people getting on the payroll, measuring and targeting those who do, and successfully waving goodbye to those who won’t or can’t improve.

Lyndsay Swinton has worked as a people manager and team leader for The Body Shop and American Express in the United Kingdom and is the creator of Management For The Rest Of Us, an online management and leadership resource. For more information, visit www.mftrou.com.

Latest stories