The Great Divide of Perception

perception vs reality

In my role as consultant I often find myself in the middle. Between employee and supervisor, leader and leader, broker and company, CEO and everyone else. I can be counselor, coach and peace maker all in the same day, sometimes in the same conversation. Being an introvert (INFJ for you Myers Briggs types) I will dwell on these conversations in my mind for days. I will replay everything that was said, get mad at myself for things I should have said and thought about later and try to dissect the reason the parties said or acted the way we did. I’m amazed at how often their reaction came down to one thing.

Their perception of the situation.

More importantly, how different their perception of the situation was from the other party. Let me give you an example.

In an effort to help an employee work better with a supervisor they both agreed to sit down with me and talk about where they were both struggling with the relationship. The employee had a pretty common complaint in workplaces today, that the manager was a micro-manager. I asked the employee to give an example which he did. The manager had a very different version of that example. They remembered that situation so differently I had to make sure we were talking about the same incident. We were.



Scope of knowledge about the bigger picture.

All things that can affect how we see, think about and remember a situation after the fact. The great divide created by different ways of perceiving a situation can be detrimental to relationships.

And yet, neither are wrong.

The only way to bridge this great divide is to communicate. I tell leaders all the time to over communicate. When they think everyone understands the why, what, who and where, explain it to them again and ask them to repeat it. Not in a condescending, micro-managing kind of way, but in a way that allows employees to express any concerns, ask any questions or ensure they understand exactly what is being asked and why.

In the example that the employee gave, had the leader checked for understanding and allowed the employee to ask questions, the perception of micro-managing would have gone away. Had the employee simply asked the questions to ensure they understood, the leader wouldn’t have felt like they had to intervene which then gave that perception of micro-managing.

Head spinning yet?

I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression that “perception is reality”. I know I’ve spouted it a time or two in my career. I’m not sure I buy that anymore. I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. I think a better statement would be that “your perception is your reality” but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s another persons.

As though we needed another reason to communicate more often and well.

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Three Ways to Handle Mistakes in a Small Business Environment


In big business when an employee or entire team makes a mistake, the effects can sometimes be easily absorbed by the business. Other individuals or departments may not even realize the mistake happened. This creates an environment where mistakes, while never desired, are easily tolerable.

Things are a bit different in a small business environment.

When there are only 22 employees and they all work in one cubicle decorated office environment, mistakes are equivalent to celebrity gossip. Everyone knows about them, judges the person making the mistake and shares their opinions on the fall out with anyone who will listen. It is often impossible to keep a mistake quiet in a small business.

Leaders can choose to handle mistakes in a couple of different ways. The right way will depend on their environment and the temperament of their staff. It’s important to note, I’m not addressing how to handle the individual who made the mistake. If the mistake is worthy of disciplinary action or coaching is an entirely different subject and those issues should always be dealt with in private. I’m simply speaking about addressing the mistake with the entire team in an effort to find resolution.

Even though the mistake may be evident to all employees, a leader can choose to only comment on the mistake in private to the person or person’s directly impacted. Publicly, the leader would make no comment on the issue unless everyone was affected. To go back to our celebrity analogy, this would be similar to the celebrity who won’t confirm her pregnancy. We see the bump, we know what’s inside, but in public she does not acknowledge it. She does this because regardless of what is obvious, it is no one’s business other than those impacted.

Some environments are very open. I have many startup clients who are trying to figure things out – even within their own product offerings. Unless a person makes a deliberately damaging mistake, the business treats all mistakes as learning opportunities for everyone. They are addressed openly and honestly even if that is a bit uncomfortable for the individual who made the mistake. The underlying theme with this approach is that there aren’t any real mistakes and that everything is an opportunity to learn. It obviously takes a very healthy organization and team to be open in this way.

Of course the third approach has to be a hybrid of those right? In these environments, those who are directly impacted receive private conversations around what happened, how to fix and how to avoid in the future. Then, once that detail has been fleshed out, the rest of the group gets a high level overview of what happened and how it is being addressed.

You may be wondering why this matters. Why would we even need to think about this ahead of time? Because consistency is key for a variety of reasons. One, it sets the tone and expectations around how these things will be handled for both employee and other leaders. Two, it feeds into the overall culture of the company. Third, it tells employee whether this is the type of environment they can be happy in long term.

The more of these “what if” scenarios you can work through before they happen, the more stable and less reactionary your work place can be.

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What the 50th Hire Means for Small Businesses

Hiring the 50th employee

Some small businesses like to maintain a smaller employee population. Most small business owners, however, have dreams of growing into a larger organization with employee numbers in the hundreds or even thousands. Either way is fine, but for those looking to grow large employee population bases only one number matters.



5. 0.

The threshold where everything changes. At least until (if) President-elect Trump makes changes.

Fifty means the business is now very likely subject to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Federal contractors may now be subject to Affirmative Action plans and EEO-1 forms. There is additional reporting that may be required under various laws as well such as Form 5500.

And those are only the federal laws. Each state may have it’s own grouping of laws that impact businesses with 50 or more employees (hello California).

Some of these laws, such as FMLA, can vastly change the way a business is currently handling it. If a business has been giving three weeks of unpaid leave, FMLA will now require them to offer up to twelve weeks once they hit 50 employees. This can represent a big change.

For this reason, I encourage employers to think about these changes well before you hit that 50th mark. When you are inching closer and know you will likely hit the mark in the next year or so, start thinking about what changes you can implement now that will lessen the financial and administrative burden when the time comes. I find that businesses always find these changes easier to swallow when they have been phased in.

It may be that once employers hit the 35 employee threshold they expand their leave policies or look into more robust benefit plans. At the 45 employee mark they start thinking through who will handle some of the administration that comes along with the ACA such as year end reporting.

Planning ahead is always better than scrambling at the last minute when it comes to legal compliance. Don’t wait until the 50th employee starts to figure out how you are going to accommodate these changes.

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Building a Culture of Ownership in Your Small Business

employee ownership

Over a year ago on LinkedIn, I wrote a post about how to get employees to think like owners. It is one of the most common complaints that I hear from small business owners. Employees don’t understand what it is like to start a business and, maybe if they did, they may work differently.

That article and this one written earlier that same year, give a couple of thoughts around how a business owner might be able to instill a “think like an owner” attitude in employees. But for this article I want to talk about a different kind of ownership. Not the ownership where every employees thinks like they own a piece of the pie, but ownership where every employee owns their own work.

The more I work with small businesses, the more I think that kind of ownership might be harder.

Here’s why. Small businesses, by nature, require that everyone wear many hats. Depending on how long the business has been around, structure, processes and best practices are still being fleshed out. That can make the environment seem a bit chaotic. When things are chaotic it is easy to pass blame when thing go awry. And when you are passing blame, you aren’t taking ownership.

You see how this plays out right?

When you are in an environment like this, how do you build a culture where, even while you are still figuring things out, employees take ownership of their work?

Hire for it.

Of course that isn’t the entire answer, but it’s the first step. Over the years I have refined my small business interviewing process. Whenever I am interviewing a person for a role with one of my clients I drill home as realistic a job preview as I can, especially if that person has never worked in a small business before. I explain what the environment is like in a startup or very small business. I explain things that could seem chaotic if never experienced in an effort to determine if this is a person that can thrive in it.

Because some can and those are the people we want.

Some people naturally take ownership regardless of the setting. These are the people who delight in their work. The fast food worker who treats every customer with the highest of customer service and seems to love their job. The worker who goes above and beyond what is asked, not to impress their boss, but to be happy with themselves. To build a culture of ownership, you have to hire for it with each and every open position.

Of course there is more: clarity around roles, an organizational structure that helps, not hinders, productivity, leaders who understand how to set expectations and motivate, but a culture of ownership starts with hiring the person with the innate tendency to take it. The rest of it is the easy part.

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One Question to ask Your Employees This Thanksgiving


I wrote a few weeks back about how Halloween provides leaders an opportunity to learn something they may not have know about their employees. Of course the upcoming holidays offer another opportunity for leaders to find out even more info from or about their employees.

In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving, leaders can ask employees what they are thankful for when it comes to the work they do. That is, what are we doing well as your employer or what aspect of your job do you really enjoy.

It’s easy to hear the complaints. It’s usually easy to identify the things that aren’t working. It is equally important however to know what is going really well and what employees really enjoy. Leaders can then do a couple of things with that information.

Replicate the experience as often as possible for existing employees and use it in recruitment marketing materials to attract new employees.

So don’t let this holiday pass without having a conversation with as many employees as possible around what about their work makes they are thankful for. You might be pleasantly surprised with the answers.

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When You Can’t Offer Advancement Offer This


One of the challenges that many small businesses face is ways to offer advancement to employees. If the business is remaining small in employee size, there isn’t much of a need for management layers that would allow employees to move up through the ranks. In fact, 70% of my clients still operate under a system where everyone reports directly to the CEO. When you are small, that often makes sense.

Those small businesses who are in startup mode or still young in their business life cycle can offer the excitement of working in this environment and the opportunity for a person to grow with the company that could eventually lead to advancement opportunities.

But not all small businesses are startups.

Many are small businesses that are very well established, have been in business for years and years and have remained small for any number of reasons. For that group it’s much harder to offer advancement opportunities when the company has purposefully remained flat.

Candidates and employees will often ask about advancement opportunities and for these businesses those are hard to offer. When an employee feels they have learned all they can in their current role, they may feel they need to look elsewhere for advancement even though they really like what they are doing and the company. It creates this internal struggle where they have to decide whether to leave the company they love or forego advancement opportunities.

That isn’t a fun place to be.

There is something small businesses like this can offer that, while not the same as advancement, can help employees gain new skills. If done right it can be a great motivator for the employee who is looking for something more than what their current role offers.

It is a form of job enlargement where employees get to work on projects or in cross functional teams that are outside of their scope of expertise. The upside for a small business is that the project may surround an area in the business that desperately needs attention but just hasn’t been made a priority because the expertise didn’t exist within or it wasn’t mission critical.

Let me give you an example.

Last year a client had a project manager who was looking to do more. He was asking for advancement opportunities that just didn’t exist within the company. He didn’t want to leave so he came to the CEO and I and asked what he could do. I asked the CEO if there were areas in the business that needed attention, but had been neglected. I thought if we could find a project that fit a personal interest of this employee maybe there could be a fit. The CEO shared that he knew the website and complementary inbound marketing strategy were lacking. The individual in charge of marketing was also in charge of sales and was spending all of their time on business development, where the company needed them most. He asked the employee if he had any interest in learning a bit of web development, SEO and content marketing and wouldn’t mind working on their setup. This would be in addition to his normal duties, but if certain tasks were accomplished, the employee would receive a special bonus.

As it happened the employee had done a bit of web development on the side and SEO had always intrigued him. He took the project and, long story short, it gave him the extra something he needed to feel like he was gaining new skills while still performing his current role. He didn’t get a bump in pay or title, but he still felt like he was gaining advancement opportunities with the new skills he was learning. The employer gets an updated website and marketing strategy while the employee gets a new opportunity. Win-win all around.

The key is not assuming you can’t offer employees new opportunities and trying to find creative ways to offer them what they are asking in a different way. Digging into their interests may uncover an area that you could both benefit from. Both must be willing to have the discussion and keep an open mind. The results can be tremendous for both sides.

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Reader Mail: My Small Business Has Hired It’s First Transgender Employee

LGBT in the workplace

Early this year a business owner in a small town in upstate New York reached out. He found me online and thought that since I wrote about and worked with businesses his size, I might be able to help him. He explained that he has a small staff of 32 employees who work in one office. The office is mostly a cubicle setting with a few offices for the executive team and a conference room. The team is extremely close and they believe in the work they are doing giving it a close family feel.

This leader had been searching for a CFO for a while. He wanted to take his time to find the right person and believed he had. During the latter stages of the interview process, when the candidate felt that an offer may be forthcoming, she let the CEO know that she was transgender. She shared that one of her concerns was whether or not the environment would accept her as she was still in the process of fully transitioning. She was also concerned that the current policies and benefit packages did not fully support current or potential LGBT employees.

The CEO, who did not have a full time HR person, reached out to get my advice on what he should do, if anything, to ensure proper support from the team. Her transgender status did not affect his desire to hire her and after she shared her story he went on to make the full offer promising that he would review the policies and work with her to ensure the environment was absolutely inclusive.

He conducted quite a bit of research before reaching out and knew that Microsoft had created GLEAM and other big businesses had instituted highly visible teams to support LGBT employees. He knew that many companies offered training specifically around transgender employees. He knew that there was a lot of things he could do, but should he. He didn’t want to draw attention to the employee or have it be a big deal if it wasn’t going to be.

First, I want to say that I applauded him for even thinking this through as much as he had. I know many business owners may have assumed nothing had to be done, or worse, not hired the employee. Second, I needed him to know that I was no diversity or LGBT expert. I help companies on a surface level with diversity efforts in recruiting and conduct blanket diversity training, but if at any time we felt he needed a true expert in this area, I was going to have to step aside.

I did tell him what I thought he should do though and here it is.

The candidate was right to be concerned about current policies and benefits and whether they fully support LGBT employees or not. Many of his didn’t. It isn’t that they discriminated, they just didn’t include. Luckily, in the areas where it mattered most, we were able to write new policies and ensure that inclusive language was added.

The CEO told me that he had done some diversity training in the past but it had been about two years. He had added 12 employees or so since then. I encouraged him to get on a regular schedule of providing overall diversity training. This training would not be specific to any one group, but help employees navigate working better with anyone who may differ from them in looks, beliefs or background.

The training should be offered to all employees as a refresher and during onboarding of new hires. Throughout the year, the leader can offer group specific training to speak to the various groups represented in his workplace if he feels that is necessary.

Management Support:
The last thing we wanted to do, and the last thing the new hire wanted us to do, was draw attention to the fact that she was transgender. She shared this information in the interview process only because she was going to need time off in the future to complete her transition and to share her concern about the policies. It would never be a leaders place to “out” any employee about any personal situation that they weren’t ready to share themselves. What management can do is ensure that when, and if, that employee decides to share this information, they are supportive. That verbally and with actions, they show all employees that they support all employees.

That was my advice. This client turned into an ongoing client and so far, this advice seems to be working and be enough. There may come a time when they need to be more vocal about LGBT inclusion or create more specific programs like those you see in larger environments. The CFO has now been with the company nearly a year and is thankful for the way things were handled and how quickly the CEO reacted to adjusting policies and making sure she was offered the same level of benefits as everyone else.

Again, I’m no expert. I don’t think there is a boilerplate way of handling these things. Hopefully, in the near future we won’t have to think about it as LGBT (and any other group for that matter) inclusion will be an automatic part of every workplace. Until that day, I applaud leaders like this one who take it seriously and want to make sure every employee is supported.

What advice would you have given? Anything different or new that I maybe didn’t think about? I would love to hear your thoughts or insight if you have experienced this in your small business.

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My #1 Rule of Social Recruiting for Small Businesses

one rule

One of my contract roles is facilitating training for Imparture, a UK based training company. The courses that I teach are all focused on social media and social recruiting. The attendees in these courses usually run the gamut from industry and size of company. Inevitably though there is usually at least one participant from a rather small business who is managing all aspects of HR on their own or with a very small team. During the training I can usually see that they are overwhelmed with all of the information thrown at them and can almost hear them wondering out loud how they will ever implement this alone.

Until I tell them that they don’t have to be everywhere or do everything.

If you work for a large business and have a huge team behind you, a robust social recruiting strategy covering several sites and running all sorts of great content is easy. For smaller businesses it’s nearly impossible.

So don’t try.

Here’s the rule. Find out where the candidates you are seeking to hire hang out most often. What site makes the most sense for you to have a presence? Find that site and build your strategy there….and there alone. Put your best content there. Spend the time on great graphics and fun job ads. Respond to comments and inquiries, be engaging and share your employer brand there and no where else.

Do that until you master it. Do it until you have it scheduled and running without taking up all of your time. Do that until you feel you are ready to incorporate another site. And know that it is ok to do it that way. Don’t feel bad about not being everywhere. Don’t feel bad about not feeling ready to add another site for months or even years. Do what you can do and do it well.

The reality is companies of all sizes should have a social presence. They should have something that potential candidates find if they search. But it doesn’t have to be all things to all people.

Scale the strategy down to what makes sense for your business. This is what we do for our clients and this is what you can do yourself. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, it just has to make sense for you.

And it has to get you results.

Spreading yourself across all sites and doing none of them well is way less likely to bring any kind of sustainable results. It will only serve to stress you out and make you think social recruiting doesn’t work. It does work and it can be a highly beneficial component of your overall recruiting strategy.

I promise it’s a rule that will not fail you. Just focus on what you can do and knock it out of the park. It will be enough.

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You Say You Want Honesty, But Do You Really?

do you want honesty

Honest words may be the sharpest of all double edged swords. They, at the same time, have the power to open our eyes and crush our souls. They hurt and give life. They are often slow to come but once delivered bring relief, if only to the giver. They are necessary and yet can feel evil.

It sounds dramatic, but you know it’s true.

I’ve executed a few projects this year with small business teams who call me in to conduct focus groups and one on one meetings with employees. The leaders want to hear what the employees may tell a third party about the company. They want me to ask direct questions and do everything in my power to get direct answers. They want honest feedback even if it’s brutal.

Or so they think.

Even though they are braced for the truth ahead of time. Even though I frame the bad with the good. Even though they usually have an inkling of areas that employees are going to provide negative feedback around (as is typically the reason I’m called in the first place), they still bristle. There is still a level of emotion, at least initially, when the feedback is delivered.

Because we are all human and hearing the honest truth can be tough.

Before I ever step foot into an office building and start asking for feedback from employees, the leaders and I have multiple discussions around their willingness to really hear the truth. We also discuss their willingness to respond to any negative feedback that may come up. That isn’t to say they have to react to every complaint or issue, but themes usually present themselves and those may need to be responded to. If the leaders do not seem to really want to hear the truth or aren’t willing to follow up on any of it after the fact, then they are wasting everyone’s time.

Like so much in leadership, asking for the truth should be a measured activity. Allowing employees an open door to provide constructive feedback is a great opportunity to improve upon the work environment, but it shouldn’t be done haphazardly. Understanding motives, goals and desired outcomes are important. Managing emotions and getting over the initial shock or anger quickly is essential.

And getting to the place where the truth can actually be heard and acted upon is vital.

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How to Create Multi-State Human Resource Policies

multi state policies

Many of the small businesses I work with have offices in multiple states. Multiple states often means multiple laws. If those companies operate in a employee friendly state, like California, there is a vast difference between many of those laws and the laws of other states. For these small businesses that means making a choice on how they want to handle policies where the laws in each state they operate in differ.

There is no one size fits all answer to this question. For some companies one way of handling these policies makes sense, while for others it wouldn’t. Each leadership team must decide what works best for them taking into consideration their employee base, the administration required and financial obligations. Typically however, I find that clients take one of three approaches.

All Policies Favor the Most Employee Friendly State
I have a few clients who operate mostly in California but have a few offsite employees in other states. They do not want to treat less than five employees different than the other 72 so they write policies based on California law and those few employees outside often benefit with more than is required in their state. This is easier for them to administer and since the out of state employees are few it doesn’t affect them financially in a significant way.

All Policies are Broken Out By State
A few of my clients cover several states with an equal amount of employees in each. For these clients they break out each policy by what is required by law in that state (or federal law where that is more generous). This means that for things like overtime and paid leave, employees in one state may have a more generous offering than others. This type of split is a little more tasking administratively and should be used when companies have systems in place that can help administer based on state.

Hybrid Approach
Finally, and probably the most popular, is a hybrid approach where some policies are universal, but others are broken out by state. For example, one of my clients has the majority of their employees outside of California and 12 hourly employees who work in the state. Their overtime policy is setup by state. Paying everyone of their employees overtime on anything over 8 hours in a day would be very costly so where they don’t have to do that, they don’t. However, when both CA and NY passed sick time laws they made those policies universal since they operate in both of those states and felt it would be easier in that instance to administer one sick leave policy.

I do encourage clients, when thinking about policies to look at the trends and set a policy they think they may not have to change in a few months. For example, sick leave has been topic for a while and many states are adopting sick leave laws. It is likely only a matter of time before a federal law is in place. It probably makes sense to adopt the most generous sick leave policy for the states you operate in universally so if a federal law does come about you are already compliant.

As I said earlier, there is really not right or wrong answer. It is completely legal to have different policies for employees in different states as long as you are following the law of that state (and federal law of course). The right answer depends on your business.

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