Creating a safe working place for Employees

I read about the recent Julie Horvath issue which is out there on the internet, and thought that I might share some of my experiences on this topic.

In case if you are not familiar with the Julie Horvath issue, Google it, or simply head over to TechCrunch who gave Julie’s side of the story.

tl;dr – Julie was an employee at GitHub who quit after feeling threatened at work

GitHub have tried to clean things up with a sincere and apologetic reply to Julie. They have taken some prompt action and that’s what matters.

So what went wrong?

In the entire episode, Julie must have felt threatened at work. Imagine having to battle out on multiple fronts with multiple people … and apart from that handle work as well. The nausea an employee might feel with so much politicking going on is natural. Who would not quit?

One of the most basic requirements of an employee (keep this term in mind folks) implicitly wants, is to feel secure. Be it financially, physically and mentally. These are the very basic requirements, if these are threatened, then the employee is bound to quit. If I were to use Maslow’s hierarchy as a model, then these would be the hygiene factors.

In letting a non-employee (the founder’s wife) sit within the working premises next to Julie, the physical security was in question. The mental security was being questioned by the love lost colleague and the founder in question. Add to it the way the organization reacted with radio silence and hushed tones, the financial security was also put in question. The next move should have been obvious, perhaps the reaction of the organization might have been to incite this move. The GitHub blog update suggests other wise, but we will never know that shall we?

Personal Catharsis

The reason I chose to write about this matter, is because recently we had a similar situation at work. One of our earlier employees went through this insecurity … thanks to my behaviour. It took some time for me to reflect and talk to a few other founders to understand what drove this employee in question to leave … leave at such a short notice. Do I regret this, yes. Did we lose a good player, perhaps. Can this be avoided in the future, definitely.

It’s a lesson learned for me that employees are not to be treated as co-founders. You can cross certain boundaries with co-founders … those boundaries are a strict no-no with employees … even if these are the people who help you grow your organization.

Sometimes, the founder can go to extraneous lengths to retain employees … not because the organization cannot survive without them, but because of the achievements that individual can do if properly channelled. In doing so, lines are crossed … sometimes it helps in bonding the individual closer to the organization … almost like a trial by fire. Sometimes, it backfires … and even worse spreads like wildfire on social media.

In Julie’s own words, what the founder did was to retain her at the organization … however things escalated to such an extent that the very opposite happened. This is what would happen when you mix professional relationships with personal ones. In trying to build a personal relationship with your team, you sometimes cross the boundary. Most of the times it pays off.

So what should a founder do?

A start-up would always face this issue. In order to do greater things, the team has to work outside its zone of comfort … constantly. How then do you build this sense of security within the team?

One simple approach would be to not fraternize with the team. I have seen many a good start-up founders do that … and to good effect. Reduce the fraternization only during moments of celebration.

One of my clear learning from the past episode is work towards fostering a sense of security for the employees … so that means take all conflict discussions offline. Conflicts which endanger the sense of security should not be openly discussed.

What I am saying is to clearly have two separate levels of information parity. What are the things that you have tried at work and it has paid off?

PS – I don’t have all the answers, however I am learning as I journey on.

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Don’t hire dogs

don't hire dogs

Dog’s are a man’s best friend. They are considered as faithful, loyal and will always be there to lift you up. A dog will fetch things for you and do silly tricks such as sit, roll over, etc.

In different companies, there is one such breed of employees. Don’t get me wrong, I am not objectifying people, and this is an analogy, if anything. So this breed of employees … they behave in the exact manner like dogs.

They are generally taken from the street or from the wild, they do not have any formal skill set with them. It’s probably because of this reason that they are extremely loyal to the company. They are willing to go the extra distance and spend more time in the office working unrealistic deadlines and striving to satisfy their masters.

Obviously, who would want to say no to such employees! Right?

Well, wrong!! Change is the requirement of all organizations, especially the small ones and the ones which are growing at a fast pace. The problem now magnifies is because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (yes, I wanted to work this cliché into this post!!). Any organization that is growing at a fast pace (60% – 100% growth YoY) would require such a huge influx of talent, that the loyal dog would now be forced to question his erstwhile unquestionable value in the company.

This is the risk, and it’s a huge one. Why is it a risk? Because at some point in the founder’s life, this loyal employee has done a favor and worked in ridiculous conditions. Now that the dog is tired and cannot do anything new, it has become a liability for the organization. Not only does it sadden the person, but the organization cannot put this figurative dog to sleep.

So if you are an entrepreneur or about to start your firm, do yourself a favor and do not hire dogs.

Addendum

Arjun Bakshi writes –

This phenomenon is not restricted to start-ups:-) Most “Big” organisations are not very different.
I feel HR / Organisations are lazy and want the easy way out. Have a template of qualifications and experience required to hire, short-list such people thru employee referrals and employment consultants and then hire them.
Why take the risk to hire people outside the template and take efforts on them?
In case you follow sports, the recent example of Jeremy Lin is a very good example of the malaise which also exists in our hiring practices. I am sending just one of the millions of articles on him. I think, Malcolm Gladwell also has a few artcles on a similar theme.

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