Entrepreneurs

What To Do When An Office Prank Goes Terribly Wrong

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here’s a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. When an office prank goes terribly wrong

I manage two employees, Roger and Niles, who are friends and in their 20s. This team is not an entry-level team; both employees have been promoted to be on this team, and they have both worked for the company for several years.

Yesterday, as a prank, Roger placed a pair of scissors on Niles’ chair, apparently assuming Niles would see them before sitting. He did not. Niles was injured and taken to an urgent care for a puncture wound. His injuries were minor, fortunately.

Roger stated he did not mean to injure Niles and it was just a bad prank. Niles stated that he did not want to get anyone in trouble, and he was not angry about what had occurred. I wrote Roger up for the situation, and that was the end of it. Should I have considered firing him?

Firing shouldn’t be a punishment; it should be a natural consequence when you decide that it no longer makes sense to keep an employee in the job. If Roger had acted with malicious intent toward Niles, then yes, firing would be appropriate. But they’re friends, he intended what he did as a prank (horribly misguided as it was), and he didn’t mean to injure anyone. An appropriate consequence for this action would be to have a very serious conversation with Roger to explain there’s now a zero-tolerance policy for him when it comes to pranks in the workplace now and that there will be far more serious consequences if he violates that ban, regardless of his intent and even if the next prank doesn’t end badly. And if Niles has medical bills, Roger should pay them. But if he’s an otherwise good employee without a track record of bad judgment previously and if you trust that he has learned the lesson and will not do anything similar in the future, firing would be overkill.

2. Setting boundaries with clients who proselytize or try to sell things

I manage a nonprofit that provides direct services to community members. We value warm and respectful relationships with clients as part of our work.

One tricky issue that has come up is that some clients do a persistent hard sell or hustle (i.e. proselytizing in which a client tries to convert us to his/her religion, or direct marketing in which a client tries to sell us cookware), which is uncomfortable. Clients and providers have an ongoing relationship and recurring appointments, and also a power dynamic (being the service provider providing services and a client receiving those services). Because of this, I have felt cautious when responding to these situations. Outside of work, this is something I would create firm boundaries around, starting with a polite “no thank you” and then escalating from there as needed to shut it down.

Do you have any advice on how to do this while also remaining professional and respectful to clients? We don’t want to dread our upcoming interactions with certain clients, which is starting to happen.

With the sales pitches, you’d be doing your staff members a favor if you gave them a policy they could easily cite, so that they can truthfully say, “We’re not allowed to have any sort of business relationship with clients.”

With the religious talk, arm them with a few phrases they can use, like “I don’t discuss religion at work, but let’s get back to Work Topic X” or “I have a firm policy against discussing religion at work” or “I prefer not to discuss religion.”

If a client continues to press after these initial attempts to shut it down, it’s reasonable to say, “I need you to respect our rules/my personal policy on this in order for us to continue working together.”

3. Hiring someone when I know the job might change significantly soon

We’re looking to add a new person to my team, and found a person who would fit the job really well. Normally I would  hire him as fast as possible. But I am likely changing jobs soon. My department is really taking off, but that is largely because I have a certain skill set that my replacement likely wouldn’t. If I go, this department and the job will very likely go in another direction.

This person has another offer from another company. It’s not quite as exciting, with a longer commute. We’re within biking distance and the other job would require him to buy a car, but it’s certainly a good job. I would rate our offer as a 9/10 and the other job as a 7/10 career-wise. Once I am gone, working in the department is likely going to change quite a lot, and move this job to a 6/10 or even lower. Should I offer a person a job, knowing I am a large part of what makes this job work and that there’s an 80% chance that I’ll be gone in a matter of months?

Ethically, I don’t think you should offer him the job without disclosing what you’ve said here. Ideally, you’d explain all this to the candidate and then let him make his own decision. Otherwise it’s too much like offering someone a job without mentioning that there’s an 80% chance the job will be moving to another state in a few months, or that the role will change from X to Y.

I realize this might not be a simple thing to do since you probably don’t want others in your company to know this is a likelihood yet, and I’m sure you don’t want to panic your current staff by having them hear that their jobs are likely to change dramatically. But I’d have real qualms about offering the job to someone who would be turning down a decent offer to take it if you don’t disclose the likelihood of significant, near-term changes.

4. Re-applying at an organization that I turned down five years ago for ethical reasons

Five years ago, I got to the third interview stage at a healthcare-related nonprofit. I was one of the finalists for a decent position. In the course of researching the organization, I came upon some articles indicating the organization was funded and heavily influenced by pharmaceutical companies despite portraying itself as an advocate for patients. I decided I was probably not right for the organization, given my strong anti-corporate political leanings at the time, and told them that given my political beliefs about the role of corporations in healthcare, the organization was probably not a good fit for me.

In hindsight, I might have been rash in my judgment. I’ve learned a lot more about how nonprofits and associations are funded and that having corporate ties and “being unduly influenced by corporations” isn’t necessarily always black and white. Many prominent mission-driven nonprofits take corporate funding from sources where if you dig deep enough you’ll uncover some sort of controversy. I’m willing to give this organization a second look.

Fast forward to today and I see an excellent position at the same organization that is a really good fit for my skills and interests. Five years has made me less strident in my beliefs. I would like to apply for this position, but the director of HR and the VP of marketing are the same people who interviewed me five years ago. If I get an interview, how would you suggest I address the issue (if it gets raised at all) about my earlier rejection of the organization because of their corporate ties?

Well … there’s a good chance it’ll be a deal-breaker for them. Most organizations won’t be super excited about hiring someone who was ethically opposed to their practices a few years ago but is applying again now.

But if you do get an interview and it does come up, just be honest. Explain that you didn’t fully understand the issues then and now that you have a better understanding, you’d be excited to work for them. (That said, be sure that’s really true. It is indeed the case that many organizations take corporate funding that can feel less-than-ideal while still being on the up-and-up, but it’s also possible that this particular organization is unduly influenced by their funding in a way you’d be uncomfortable with.)

5. Using an example from 10 years ago in my cover letter

I have a cover letter that I modify as needed for each application. In my first paragraph, I talk about my event planning experience. In the second paragraph, I reference my educational background. I have two master’s degrees, which I got with my undergraduate degree in four years by taking extra classes each semester, classes over the summer, etc. I used to mention it because I think it highlights my work ethic, but lately I’ve been rethinking it because I’m 10 years out of school. Is it still appropriate to reference getting my degrees all at once to highlight my work ethic from 10 years ago? Or should I use another example from my work experience?

Yes, use something more recent. Otherwise employers will wonder if you haven’t had impressive accomplishments more recently. (Also, at this point in your career, it’s less important to go out of your way to highlight your work ethic than it was right after graduating. A decade into your career, you have more of a track record of work that will speak for itself as far as your drive.)

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to [email protected].

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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