In fall 2006, Roanoke, Va.-based Carilion Health System instituted service standards that apply to the way employees treat customers and each other, says Education Consultant Lisa Pendleton. To launch the initiative, 4,000 employees were sent to an all-day program on service excellence and how to best interact with co-workers. The standards cover interpersonal best practices such as teamwork, communication, and how to maintain a respectful atmosphere. New hires are taught the standards, and all employees are evaluated on them, with adherence to these principles comprising 35 percent of their evaluation score. "We start at the get-go trying to change that culture," Pendleton says.
The service standards were developed and rolled out by an interdepartmental team including representatives from disparate areas of the health system, such as finance, nutrition, environmental services, human resources, and strategic development, says Director of Human Resources Debbie Lovelace. Creation of a formal standards initiative was essential at Carilion given the diversity of its workforce. Part of the "respect" standard is sensitivity to the cultural expectations of others. "We have more than 30 different nationalities within our facilities," says education consultant Lisa Lovegrove, "so it's knowing things as simple as the culture of the person you’re working with, and how they appreciate being addressed."
The company's I-Skills Zone program helps employees understand how to communicate appropriately to co-workers, including those of differing backgrounds, says Lovegrove. Workers examine their own personal beliefs and values, as well as those of their co-workers. They are taught to always ask if in doubt about what might offend. "If there is a specific group that is located in one work area over another, then we try to get them more information about that culture," Lovegrove explains. In a Carilion work area heavily populated by Bosnian immigrants, American-born peers were made aware of that culture’s traditions, including ethnic foods and holidays.
With sensitivity to the feelings of co-workers so ingrained in Carilion's culture, the organization came up with its own code words to quickly let employees know when they’ve either crossed the line, or said something positive, says Lovelace. A supervisor who overhears an untoward comment from one subordinate to another only has to say a quick "Whoa!" in passing for the offender to get the message; a "Wow!" by contrast, is all it takes to show approval. It’s a way to discreetly communicate that behavior is noticeably good or bad.
Document processing company BÖWE BELL + HOWELL (BBH) makes sure employees understand corporate values in concrete terms, says Melanie Miller, human resources manager, training and development. The values include honesty, integrity, professionalism, teamwork, customer empathy and focus, respect for the individual, "everything better" commitment (always striving to do better), recognition and encouragement of "extraordinary efforts from dedicated people," community support, and customer service. "I know a lot of companies have corporate values," says Miller, "but what I find is at BBH we really live the values."
Workers don't have to look up the company's values in an employee guidebook to be reminded of them, she notes. The corporate intranet features stories and news that illustrate everyday examples of the values, and new hires immediately get schooled in them. New managers are primed on how the company ethos should impact their new job role through a program known as "BÖWE BELL + HOWELL Leadership Orientation (BBHLO)." The three-day course aims to create consistency in how managers, and their teams, view and use the values. "We want managers to be able to make sure the company values are something their people understand in real, concrete terms," Miller explains. "We're not asking people to memorize what the values are in words; we're asking them to put them in concrete terms."
For learners to describe teamwork as "co-workers pitch in to help whenever they're needed" is not enough. A better description of the value would be that employees should be able to go to a team meeting rife with disagreement, and emerge ready to unanimously support the team’s final decision. "It's always a fight to prevent values from becoming something that’s just motherhood and apple pie," says Miller. "That's why we push so hard for those concrete examples."
Managers are taught to ask questions that elicit such examples from subordinates during orientation, and employees share stories of the values in action with new hires. The company’s annual code of conduct training, its "Honesty and Integrity" class, also begins with illustrated examples of the values. In the course's discussion of ethical questions workers might face, trainers ask which corporate values impact each situation. In BBH’s "Performance Management and Feedback," its annual performance review process, the setting and accomplishment of goals are tied back to the company’s overarching philosophy. "We're looking at demonstration of core competencies," says Miller, "things such as communication skills, teamwork, and professionalism, and those are fully aligned with the corporate values."
Red Flag Alert
Getting your values in place, along with an actionable plan to make them real to employees, isn't all you need. Staying aware of conflict-related red flags is also essential, says Bob Gemignani, senior vice president and chief talent officer for New York-based communications consultancy Hill & Knowlton, Inc. "First and foremost is scarcity of resources," Gemignani says of the top causes of employee dispute. "The second one is different values, attitudes and perceptions, and then I would say a lack of agreement about needs, goals, and priorities." Other environmental troublemakers, he says, include poor communications, inadequate organizational structure for teamwork and unclear goals and responsibilities.
When four people share an assistant, Gemignani says of a classic scarcity of resources scenario, little wonder arguments arise as to how that employee should prioritize the work of the people he or she reports to. The solution: Having that many supervisors for one employee is never a good idea, Gemignani points out, but to make it better, one manager among the four could be appointed, on a rotating basis, to set the worker's priorities.
Also beware of situations in which one person's decisions unilaterally affect the comfort of numerous others. Sometimes the cause of such office-bound oppression can be silly. Gemignani recalls a dispute that arose due to the placement of a thermostat in an employee's office. The problem was the thermostat not only controlled the temperature of that worker's own office, but the offices of a few co-workers, as well. The only way it would work, he advised, was for all affected to agree on what the temperature should be, and not allow anyone to touch it without prior discussion.
Poor communication is another potential hot button issue. "Assuming somebody else is taking care of something, and then when it falls between the cracks, searching for the guilty" is a common consequence of not communicating clearly enough with co-workers, says Gemignani. A similar outcome is likely when goals and responsibilities aren't clear.
"The remedies for most of these things," Gemignani advises, "are that managers should communicate regularly and spell things out clearly, be certain job descriptions accurately reflect what an employee is responsible for, and provide feedback often."
Sidebar: Quick Tips
An office where co-workers gossip about one another, and search for the most convenient suspect when work doesn't get done, is no reason to lose hope. There are steps to change course:
• Have a committee composed of a cross-section of employees or managers create and roll out standards of conduct.
• Ensure employees understand corporate values in actionable terms by requiring them in training to come up with specific, concrete examples to illustrate.
• Tie reinforcement of corporate values to training-related initiatives and programs, such as performance reviews. Goals and accomplishments should align with the company ethos.
• Clearly communicate work priorities and responsibilities, and provide feedback on how well employees follow through.
• Launch training that alerts employees to differences between their own cultural expectations, and those of co-workers.
• Teach employees that the communication skills they use at home, or with friends, isn't fit for the office. They need communication skill sharp enough to work out difficulties with co-workers on their own, without always relying on human resources to moderate.
Sidebar: Conflict Avoidance
The ultimate achievement in conflict management is for the problems never to occur in the first place. "Conflict is an unavoidable consequence of working with others," says Caryn Tilton, president and CEO of training consultancy MyPlaceToLearn, "but I think 80 percent of it would disappear if organizational leaders at all levels were more skilled at creating conflict-healthy work environments."
One way to do that is by teaching employees that there's a difference between the way they communicate at home, and the way they are expected to communicate at the office. "What I always say to folks is, 'When you’re on the job, I don't expect you to use your shoes-off self-communications style,'" Tilton says. "You're going to have to develop new [communications] skills not only to work better with each other, but also to deal more professionally with customers."
In the conflict-healthy office of the 21st century, 80 percent of employee disputes should be able to be settled before ever reaching a supervisor's desk, Tilton states. "I train employees on how to go directly to the person with whom they have a disagreement, and handle the issue adult to adult," she says.
To prepare workers to deal with such difficulties on their own, Tilton assigns exercises, or communications "homework," as part of their training. They might, for example, be instructed to walk down one city block expressionless, and the next smiling, and watch how their demeanor affects passersby. "It's just amazing the different response you get from other people, when you, yourself, have different behavior," says Tilton of the moral of the exercise. "While you can't always change the behavior of another person, you can change your behavior to get a different response."