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Measure Twice, Cut Once!

Mistakes can often be avoided if you double-check your perceptions.

Carpenters and builders have learned to avoid making mistakes the hard way, thereby ruining valuable and costly material. Cut the wood improperly, and the piece is unusable. So, the little saying about measuring twice and cutting once plays in their heads every time they are about to rip into a new sheet of plywood or to position their saw on a 2x4. It is a constant reminder that they have one shot at getting it right, or it will cost time, money, and even reputation. Measuring twice means making sure that one has thought of all the things that could go wrong before acting or making a decision, and that maxim applies to human resource professionals as well.

While there is little research on the nature and cost of specific mistakes that human resource practitioners make, a large number of the stories that we collected fell into this category. Hopefully the following ones might make you think twice (literally).

Slowly I Turned...Step by Step...

Many of the mistakes made by HR folks are due to a failure to clarify expectations about outcomes and processes. Not asking the right questions, not following the prescribed process, or failing to communicate clearly seem to be at the heart of the stories we read. In others, it was trying to rush to meet a deadline or to catch up. As my grandmother used to say, "More haste, less speed." The more you rush, the more mistakes you are likely to make.

For example, in the following story, the HR person was clearly working during a very busy time of the year, she didn't have a lot of personal interaction with each candidate that would help her remember them, and she proceeded to circumvent the hiring protocol in order to wrap up the hire in what she thought was a timely manner. Unfortunately, as you will see, it did not go as everyone involved thought it should:

I'm embarrassed to even share this story, but since it's anonymous, maybe someone can learn from my mistake. We were interviewing for a Regional Sales Manager during the busiest time of the year. We had it down to our final two candidates. I had only met each of them one time, but they had similar names. One's first name was William; the other one had Williams as his last name.

A committee interviewed the candidates, and everyone liked the one with the last name Williams, but our CEO liked the other one whose first name was William. As I was heading to a meeting one day, the hiring manager asked me to extend the offer to Mr. William. He meant Bill, but he thought he was being funny calling him Mr. William, or "Mr. Bill." I heard Mr. Williams. I figured the CEO just went with his committee's decision to hire the one with the last name of Williams, instead of forcing the group to go with someone they didn't want (Bill).

So, I proceeded to extend the offer to Mr. Williams. He was elated! He submitted his resignation immediately and said he could start the following Monday. He faxed me his acceptance letter, and I went to share the news with the hiring manager. I showed him the acceptance, and he asked if it was a joke. I was confused, which he could tell, and he proceeded to tell me that it was the wrong guy. I turned beat red and thought my life would be over. He started laughing and said how glad he was I that I went ahead and offered the job to the person we all wanted, but he said I was going to have to break the news to the CEO. The CEO wasn't so understanding. He told me to rescind the offer. I explained that he already resigned from his other job. He said that they couldn't have possibly replaced him yet, and they should just give him his job back.

Well, as most HR practitioners know, it doesn't work that way. I explained that I had checked with the SHRM website on-line help, and while they can't offer legal advice, they felt like the candidate quit his job in good faith based on the offer I extended. So, I shared the legal concerns in writing. He checked with our attorney, who agreed with me (and SHRM), that we should honor the offer. The CEO never let me live that down, and until this day, he'll ask if I hired anyone without his approval lately. Luckily, Mr. Williams ended up being the top Regional Sales Manager in the nation in his first year and is on his way to doing the same this year.

How did this mistake really happen? Clearly, being extremely busy often makes us overlook important details. Sometimes we try to take short cuts or to rush in order to get our work done by a deadline that is either self-set or set by others. However, the story also points out the importance of following the agreed-upon process, step by step. By making an offer to a candidate without first having an offer letter signed by the hiring authority, the HR managers were able to circumvent the regular process.

However, a more egregious error seems evident as well, and it suggests that there was little documentation to refer to as the human resource practitioner began the process of making job offers. Without signed offer letters, selection scores, or other indicators, the HR professional had only his or her memory and perception to rely upon, and neither was particularly accurate. Such hiring scenarios could turn out to be a costly mistake, both legally and from a public relations perspective.

Too Many Silly Mistakes Erode Trust

Trust is a prerequisite for establishing and maintaining relationships. Trust can be undermined by malicious intent, but it can also be undermined by incompetence. When a manager is inconsistent in following process or doesn't communicate clearly about expectations, employees begin to see the manager as incompetent.

The following story shows the importance of clarity and consistency in all our HR practices:

The hiring manager wanted to hire a Creative Director. At our company, the word "Director" was a coveted title. In this case, however, it was not really indicative of the level of this particular position. So, I talked to the candidate and explained some of the politics surrounding that title, and I extended the offer as a "Creative Manager."

When we announced the new hire, people were very pleased to have a fellow manager. That is until they saw her business card. Her manager ordered her business cards with the title of "Creative Director."

Needless to say, this created a revolving door at my office. People were upset that we introduced her as Creative Manager, but we put Creative Director on her business cards. I explained what had happened, but many thought we were trying to be deceptive. Those that didn't share this belief just thought we were incompetent and couldn't get the title right.

Like the mistake highlighted earlier, this is another example of poor communication between the HR department and the hiring manager. However, this HR manager learned a very valuable lesson about involving the hiring manager in the process:

I learned the importance of getting the manager on the same page as me before the offer is made. We started making the offers together, in fact. It actually worked out quite well, because often the candidate would ask something that only the hiring manager would know. Their questions could get answered immediately without me having to go ask the hiring manager and then call the candidate back.

In addition, this manager also learned an important lesson about restructuring a process and refining how she approached her job:

We decided to centralize the ordering of business cards. The Administrative Assistant in HR was the only one who was allowed to order cards as a result of this mistake. She was able to match titles of offer letters to job descriptions. We ended up catching several errors, even simple ones like how the person wanted his or her name listed on the business card. This also generated some cost savings for us; because we were ordering more cards at one time, instead of one small order here and there, we were also able to take advantage of the discounted bulk rate.

The process of ordering business cards not only helped the company be more consistent and avoid errors, but it ultimately helped save money. There is a more subtle problem in this situation, too, and it is a political one. When employees believe you are being deceptive because of something you did without consulting anyone first, that produces perceptions of distrust that can carry over to other behaviors and situations. With HR, despite what the old saying implies, it is always better to take the time to "ask permission first," rather than "beg for forgiveness" later.

Get It In Writing

You can change a lot of things in an organization, but when you start messing with people's pay, they sit up and take notice. As one CEO explained, "It's easy enough to upset people for free, so why mess with their pay?"

Of course, our goal is not to upset people at all if we can help it. However, decisions that managers make are not always well-received, but they are almost never received well when the verbal commitment doesn't match what actually happens. The following story points out that all agreements made between employees and employers should be in writing-no exceptions!

We hired a tradesman at $20/hour to manage the construction of an entire apartment complex. The Project Manager (PM) verbally agreed to $20/hour with the tradesman. Unfortunately, the PM never submitted any paperwork for the new hire, so the person never got paid.

After three weeks, the tradesman asked how the pay cycle worked-weekly, bi-weekly, monthly? He was told it was weekly and that the first check took some time to arrive. Another three weeks went by, and because there still wasn't any paperwork, there still wasn't a paycheck.

The tradesman inquired again, and the PM apologized and said he should have his check in a week. Two weeks later, the check finally arrived. The hourly rate was $15/hour. Not only did the poor guy have to wait two months to get paid, but his rate wasn't what had been verbally agreed to.

When he asked the PM, the PM said that because business had slowed down, he was over budget, so all he could afford now was $15/hour. On top of that, because business was down, the tradesperson wasn't going to be able to find another job. So he stayed, but what a lousy way to do business. I was ashamed to be associated with the company.

Of course, "get it in writing" seems obvious, but unfortunately, this doesn't happen all the time. A signed document showing the actual agreement can prevent initial relationship and trust problems. And, from a public relations perspective, employees, vendors, and others are less likely to perceive the company as engaging in "a lousy way to do business."

You've Got Mail!

In the last few years there have been numerous examples of e-mails that have been the undoing of employees. Whether it has been the inappropriate use of e-mail for soliciting donations or political purposes, sending highly personal or angry messages, or the general misinterpretation of the language used, organizations are becoming more and more vulnerable to what is bandied back and forth in emails. For example, have you ever sent an e-mail to the wrong person?

The CEO of our company was reporting via email back to his Board of Directors regarding the status of the open CFO position. The Board knew that the Controller had applied, and in the emailed report the CEO told the Board that the Controller was not going to get the role. He added, "I don't even know how long she'll be here." He meant that once she found out she wasn't getting the promotion, she would probably leave.

However, he sent this as "reply all" to an e-mail that the Controller was originally copied on. The CEO realized it immediately and called our CIO who, unfortunately, was gone for the day. After not being able to find anyone in the IT department that could retract the e-mail, he called me [the HR manager]. I thought he was going to cry. He asked me if I thought she had read it yet. I looked outside and saw her car in the parking lot, so I told him I figured she had seen it. He asked me what he could do. I told him I thought he should just be truthful and apologetic. I suggested he apologize to her about finding out via an e-mail that she wasn't going to get the job, and then to explain what he meant by the comment regarding how long she'd be there.

He asked me to sit in on the conversation, so I went and got her, and told her the CEO was on the phone and wanted to talk to her. She thought she was going to lose her job, so when he explained the situation, she was actually relieved it wasn't what she had thought. She said she hadn't planned to leave, as she liked it there, and while she was disappointed she didn't get the role, she understood. They joked a bit, and she was ultimately fine with the whole thing. I think the best thing he did was to address it right away and to have me present as a neutral third party.

There are two lessons for us here. First, of course, is the lesson we have reiterated several times already: proofread every document before it is sent! However, the second lesson is equally important; in just about every conversation between an employee and an employer, it's best to have a third party present. And, as an HR professional, you are a perfect choice to be that third party. You never want something to be misinterpreted or to become a "he-said, she-said" conversation.

Legal Headaches

One of the most important areas in which HR needs to "measure twice" is in the area of legal liability. A poll released by the National Foundation of Independent Business found that 47% of small employers are concerned or very concerned that they will be sued in the next few years.
We've all had nightmares about being sued or have been sued in the past for mistakes that, in retrospect, we can't imagine we didn't catch. Some have to do with missing cues about problematic behaviors of current employees, and some have to do with thinking we have all our "ducks in a row" when it comes to paperwork. Here's a story about the importance of making sure your documentation is correct:

Our corporate office began an initiative to do a comprehensive I-9 audit. We went through our current I-9's to update them wherever necessary, adding any that were missing. It took some time (we had 500 employees), and towards the end I heard my assistant laughing. When I asked her what was so funny, she showed me an I-9 from one of the employees in the plant. The one form of ID he provided to the HR person at the time (not me of course!) was a "social security card" - with a HUSTLER ID number and photo to match! I had to go explain to him that his Hustler card wasn't a proper form of ID and that he had to provide another!

Thank goodness it was an audit initiated by the company and not by Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of Homeland Security.

Helpful Tips

  1. Make sure that everything with your name on it is reviewed by you before sending on to others. That includes letters, contracts, Emails, and job offers.
  2. Review with top management the policy on whether or when salary information is shared. Giving management the reasons why pay secrecy can undermine motivation can help them understand the issues of perceived vs. real inequity for their employees.
  3. Find court cases at legal sites, for example that are relevant to the particular situation that you face. Share those with managers who ask you to violate what you know to be a legal mine field. Usually the monetary damages for the violation outweigh the savings from the illegal act; but even if they don't for the company, they certainly could for you!

Closing Thoughts

As an HR professional, you role is often as a mediator between two parties who have misunderstood each other or a situation. As such, never take that role lightly. It can be the difference between clear communication and misinterpretation; it can help save a relationship or dissolve one; it can foster trust or create distrust; and, ultimately, it can prevent further problems for you, employees, managers, and the organization overall.

Take the extra time to proofread documents and emails, as well as to double-check your own perceptions and understanding of what is said and meant. It is a small amount of time that is well-spent in the long run.

In other words, "measure twice, cut once." Why waste a perfectly good 2x4?

More from Dale James Dwyer Ph.D.
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