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Shades of Grey

Question: I have a talented and dedicated employee who just can’t seem to find the grey area in his job. He follows the rules almost slavishly and always appears to be concerned with not making a mistake. Can you suggest a way that I could help him be less rigid?

Before looking at what your employee can do to loosen up, it would be worth asking yourself whether there is anything about the working environment which might be encouraging this sort of behaviour.

Philip Blackford
VIce President
Executive Career
Transition Services
Right Management Inc.
Organizations with a low tolerance for risk or a high focus on meeting corporate goals regardless of the cost, tend to blame staff when mistakes are made. Many people who find themselves in this sort of setting react by doggedly sticking to the rules and by always covering their backsides in case something goes wrong - which inevitably it will. In these sorts of settings, the needed change is really in leadership approach. Staff should be made to feel supported and understood rather than pushed and punished. The pursuit of excellence is healthy and productive; the pursuit of perfection is destructive and neurotic.

If you’re satisfied that the issue is not related to the working environment there are a number of things that might be getting in the way on a personal level. The first two are the same ones we’ve already been exploring at the corporate level – risk avoidance and perfectionism.

Being overly cautious can be a tremendous career handicap, and usually reflects an underlying fear of failure. The trick here is not for you to try to eliminate risk on behalf of your employee, nor is it to simply push him out of his comfort zone. Instead, try coaching him to start calculating and managing risk in ways that allows for a reasonable return on investment. In other words, help him understand that some failure is part of growth. Make sure he understands that you accept the fact that he’s going to make mistakes, and that it will be okay when he does, because risking and failing is one of the most important ways we learn. You can also point out to him that sometimes there is more to lose by avoiding risk than by meeting it head on (the risk of not taking risks).

Perhaps your employee is the sort of person who wants their work to be perfect? Many people see perfectionism as a positive trait when in truth it generally leads to frustration and disappointment. Help your employee to strive for excellence, not perfection. When appropriate, help them learn how to accept solutions that are “good enough for now”.

Analysis paralysis is another undesirable outcome of perfectionism, and is sometimes associated with waiting until all the information is in. Very rarely, if ever, do we get all the information we’d like. Delaying decisions may simply be another way of avoiding criticism and risk. Help your employee strike a balance between reflection and action. Remind him that you are prepared to accept the fact that he will make the “wrong decision” from time to time (everyone does) and that the advantages gained by launching the “right ones” in a more timely fashion will generally outweigh the occasional mistake. Teach him to trust his intuition a bit more. Encourage him to start small (get him to practice by taking a risk on a couple of “little” decisions).

Another possibility is that your employee is getting hung up in details. Perhaps he’s making things more complex than they need to be or is consequently missing the bigger picture. Getting “lost in the weeds” inevitably slows things down and leads either to indecision or decisions which are out of sync with the rest of the world.

Coach your employee to regularly step back from issues. Teach him to look for patterns and familiar data. Get him to ask himself “when have I seen this sort of process in the past / when have I seen a similar process fail, and why?” More importantly, “when have I seen a similar process succeed and what were the conditions which led to the success?” Coach your employee to regularly ask himself, “who and what else will be affected by this plan of action?” What you’re trying to do is provide him with general principles and strategies which will help him quickly and accurately assess future as well as current problems.

One of the best ways of helping an employee grow professionally is to give them a stretch assignment which exercises the skill set you want them to develop. You could also look for role models, people close to your employee who are already performing well in regard to reasonable goal setting and flexibility, and have your staff person observe and emulate them.

Changing behaviour is seldom easy, but the personal and professional rewards are often worth the effort. Give yourself and your employee time. Research suggests that it takes roughly six months before new behaviours really take hold and are acknowledged by people around you.

Philip Blackford, Vice President Executive Career Transition Services, Right Management

Employee Blogs

QUESTION: Our management team has noticed that several of our employees have their own blogs – it’s not just for teenagers any more. As an employer, what do I need to know about blogs and blogging?

You’re right: Blogging has become mainstream in a big way. According to, the leading blog tracking company, there are now more than 75 million blogs worldwide, with about 35 million in North America alone. Blogging technology is easily acquired and used, giving nearly everyone with a computer the chance to tell the world how they think and feel.

Paul Dodd
One of the fastest-growing segments of blog authors is GenXers. They are now in their peak working years, so it’s not surprising that work is a popular topic to explore in their musings. Whether it’s discussing the company’s latest product or venting about a frustrating experience with a boss or customer, employees are talking about what is going on inside their organizations – and they’re naming names, posting photos and videos, and making the information available to anyone else with an Internet connection.

When companies are blindsided by blog content, the repercussions can be significant: Copyright infringement, confidentiality, libel, harassment, wrongful termination and plain old ‘image problems’ can all have serious long-term consequences.

The root of the problem is that blogging is growing so quickly. The number of blogs in North America is doubling every 6-12 months, according to, and corporate policies and handbooks simply haven’t caught up yet. In many organizations, management hasn’t articulated any kind of blogging-related policy, or defined how far they can regulate personal blogs created by employees outside of work hours.

Take, for example, the Delta Airlines flight attendant who was fired for posting to her personal blog “inappropriate images” of herself and co-workers in Delta uniforms. In an article she wrote after being fired, she says “I…searched for a specific company policy prohibiting posting pictures on the Web or blogging, which I could not find.”

Enforcing employees’ blogs can also cause problems: Microsoft (a company which probably should have known better) recently found itself embarrassed when one of their temps posted photos on his personal blog, showing three skids of Apple computers being delivered to Microsoft’s head office in Seattle. His termination from Microsoft set off a second wave of bad publicity when the temp, unsurprisingly, posted the news of his firing on his blog.

Establishing and communicating a corporate blogging policy is good for business; employees function better when they have a clear set of guidelines and expectations, while employers reduce the risk of blog-related damage.

At a minimum, your blogging policy should address issues such as:

  • Confidential information, trade secrets and non-disclosure requirements
    What can employees say about sales, product development and other dealings of the company? How much can they say about it, and when can they say it?

  • Use of intellectual property such as company trademarks, logos or copyrighted materials
    What are the rules that govern the use and mention of any of the company’s intellectual property? Can employees use, for example, a company image on their personal site without specific permission?

  • Securities regulations that deal with insider trading and information leaks
    Public companies face another level of complexity and regulation. What can employees discuss without breaking SEC rules?

  • Appropriate and non-harassing conduct towards the company, clients and co-workers
    Disparagement, ridicule and name calling are but a few of the pitfalls of personal blogs that can occur when employees vent about co-workers and clients. At what point does such behaviour become libelous or otherwise legally inappropriate? Are there invasion of privacy issues if co-workers or clients are identified and discussed without their knowledge?

  • Anonymity
    Many employees publish their blogs anonymously, changing details so that they and their co-workers are not specifically identifiable, yet many of these blogs still pose issues for the employer. What are the differences, if any, in your policies for anonymous versus identified bloggers?

    To protect your organization, it’s time to update your employee handbook with an official policy on blogging and other online behaviour. Knowing where the lines are drawn helps everyone – from legal and marketing to HR and the employees – feel more comfortable about what’s expected. Such a policy also gives you a stronger leg to stand on should you need to take disciplinary or legal action against an employee.

    Paul Dodd is the President of Head2Head, one of Canada’s fastest-growing recruiting services companies, specializing in recruiting, HR, supply chain and IT professionals. Visit for more information.

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