Care About Employees, But Be Careful

I have conducted a number of management training programs in which I have asked managers what they think employees expect of them. Among the most common answers: respect, recognition, consistency, fairness and open communication.

All of these are necessary. But they are not sufficient.

Less frequently raised is the reality that employees want to know that their manager cares about them. No employee wants to be “just a number.”

Employees who feel cared for are more engaged. And, companies with engaged employees are more profitable.

In her article “Lead with Love and You’ll Love the Results,” TalentCulture CEO Meghan M. Biro cites an important study by the Boston Consulting Group.  According to the study, since 2001, companies that embrace “whole person” employee engagement have consistently outpaced growth in S&P average cumulative share price by margins of up to 99%. In other words, the “soft” stuff affects “hard” numbers.

In engagement surveys I have reviewed, comments frequently focus on the degree to which an employee feels his or her manager cares for him or her as a person, not just as an employee. Indeed, whether an employee “feels” cared for often affects whether he or she cares about the company.

Biro states in her article:  “It’s easy to roll our eyes at the power of love in the workplace, to be cynical, to dismiss all the touchy feely nonsense…Big mistake!” She’s right.

Of course, managers should not tell each employee that he or she is loved. Equally true, however, managers need to show, by their words and their actions, that they care about the employee as a whole person.

Unfortunately, however, the laudable anti-discrimination laws can make caring dicey. That is, as leaders, we need to be careful in terms of how we care.

Take, for example, an employee who appears palpably depressed. If you ask the employee whether he is depressed, the answer you may hear is: “Not anymore. You have just given me a perceived disability claim under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).”

But that does not mean that we should ignore the employee who appears to be suffering. It just means that we need to be thoughtful on how we are thoughtful.

For example, the manager could say something like: “I just wanted to make sure everything is OK.  Do you want to talk?”

If the employee does not want to talk, he can simply say, “No.” But the employee knows that the manager cares.

Some lawyers might say even this question by management creates some risk. How so? The employee could disclose a physical or emotional problem. This could result in a duty to accommodate. Also, if adverse action is taken later, the employee could argue that the adverse action was based upon the knowledge it obtained by asking a very human question.

But not asking the question is not risk-free. Cold, unfeeling leaders create disengaged employees, and that has a major impact on the bottom line.

Let’s take another example. An employee has on her desk pictures of children. The pictures are brand new. Should the manager say anything? From a purely legal standpoint, it is safest to say nothing. But that reaction is an overreaction to the potential legal risk.

Don’t ask the employee whether the children are hers. And, certainly, don’t ask the employee whether she intends to have more.

However, you could say something as simple as, “Nice pictures.” If the employee wants to provide more detail, she can. Or, not. In either case, it is existential recognition of the whole person without prying.

We hear a lot about micro-inequities. Well, there are also micro-equities. That is, there are little things that as leaders we can do that mean a lot to employees.

Companies should “actively care” about their employees, to paraphrase Biro. We just need to do so in such a way that the unintended adverse consequence of our caring is not litigation.

This blog is not legal advice and should not be construed as applying to specific factual situations.

About the Author: Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris LLP in the Employment, Labor, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group. He is also the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, which provides training for human resource professionals, in-house counsel, benefits administrators and managers at Duane Morris, at client sites and by way of webinar on myriad employment, labor, benefits and immigration matters.

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