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    HR Resources | 24 min read

    Creating and Maintaining a Positive Work Culture - Tips by Author Pete Havel

    We talked to author, Pete Havel, about his book titled "The Arsonist in the Office - Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Co-Workers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures". In this insightful sharing and discussion, Pete Havel shared tips on how hiring managers can screen for arsonist before they join the company and how we can deal with situations created by toxic individuals when put in one.

    Read on for the full transcript.

    1. Dealing with Talks When People Leave
    2. How to Avoid Hiring an Arsonist
    3. Disruptive Behavior Pyramid Intervention
    4. Documentations
    5. Hiring HR Leaders
    6. Differentiating Between Toxic Individuals and Company Culture
    7. Dealing with Toxic Personality
    8. Developing Great Culture for Hourly Workers

    Lydia: Hello and welcome to Workstream's weekly webinar. Today we are joined with the author Pete Havel, the author of The Arsonist in the Office - Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Co-Workers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures. And specifically what we're going to focus on is how small business owners, operators and HR leaders can really build great work cultures and also screen for people who are arsonists, people who could be destroying their culture. So to kick it off, I really just wanted to say love the book, it's really helpful with a lot of great tips in general. One of the things that I pulled from the book was you mentioned a sign of a toxic workplace is that the problem solvers leave or be fired when they voice concerns. So I guess to start off with this, who is going to be using this book? How can people deal with the talks of work culture when the first thing that happens is the problem solvers leave?

    Dealing with Talks When People Leave

    (0:59 - 3:03)

    Pete: Hey this is great starting off with a softball and a promotional for myself. The book is really because I found myself when I wrote it. I was somebody at a fairly high level in the company that I thought I had some power. I had some influence within the organization but I found myself with a problem that no level of the culture was going to protect me from, and that was being hired to work with your employee that was so toxic. None of the leadership within the organization wanted to make the move to remove them. So it's really for that person at the bottom rung of the ladder, middle management or leadership, they're all going to get something out of it.

    So what do you do if everyone's leaving? Frankly, if the conditions are so bad everybody's jumping ship, one of the two things are probably going to happen. Hopefully the arsonist is going to leave, and I describe arsonists as the people with just enough power and definitely the mindset to burn stuff down. It may be your culture, it may be your career, it may be the company you're working with and we see these people in all sorts of different parts of the corporate world, but one of the things I learned was that self-preservation is always going to be a key to whatever you do. You've got to watch out for yourself. As much as we like to say we need to watch out for everybody, love everybody in the organization, one of the things I learned and I hear it constantly is, people are watching for themselves first and foremost, they'd like to protect you if they can but if you're in trouble, you need to start looking outward to see what your next move may be. Or if you own the company, know that if you let the problems continue, you're going to be facing the problems.

    How to Avoid Hiring an Arsonist

    (3:04 - 13:01)

    Lydia:Yeah and I think one of the things that's important is just identifying arsonists really early on and you wrote a lot in the book about the hiring processes and how you can screen for them. Do you have any tips for hiring managers as to what to look out for to prevent bringing somebody toxic in?

    Pete: Absolutely. When you're asking them questions for instance I know a good one when you're looking for someone to be a part of your team is something about the lines of "Tell us about a problem that you solved at work and tell us how you did it." Somebody that was obviously part of a team that tackled the problem and is talking about nothing but themselves, the "I" "I" "I "I" "I" type of situation. Here's one for the hiring managers - What did you think of your last manager? Tell me about your managers and you're getting somebody that is already going negative on the people that they've dealt with in the past. Those were a couple.

    The other thing, it's amazing how much I hear this from people in HR, is frankly, what a joke the references process has become in some organizations where you have companies that are basically just trying to check the box to be able to say we contacted three people and that we've jumped through that hoop and you're doing with and that's great if you've got a great employee but if you have somebody that has been hell on wheels in past jobs, you're missing a golden opportunity to learn more about them. If I'm a hiring manager especially in a small organization where a virus of fire can spread quickly, you want to know who you're hiring and you want to take the time to let them, and we may talk about this during the COVID-19 year, how do you find out a little bit more of who they are beyond the resume or that quick call to what may be a former manager but maybe somebody's cousin for all we know. So people take the extra step. 

    Lydia: Yeah and I mean we've chatted with hiring managers and operators who when they really need to fill a position, they joke it's like the glass or mirror test which is if they breathe on it and it fogs up, they're hired. So I think we definitely need to do more steps. One of the questions I love that you suggested is what was your least favorite thing about your previous employer. I've never asked that question before but I'm certainly going to now. Are there any other questions like that that you just think everyone should add to their interview?

    Pete: This one's not a question but it gives you a little bit of insight into who they are and I think there's various ways that you can use this example. Walt Bettinger who now heads up Charles Schwab Investments provides a great example of what he used to do with senior managers. Now cats out of the bag because he told the story in The New York Times. Now everyone knows this story if they went to check up on him but what he used to do is invite senior level executives to breakfast with them at some restaurant somewhere and say he would get there a few minutes early and tell the waiter or waitress could you mess up this person's omelette, throw some things in there that don't belong, I'm going to tip you a little bit extra do something that frequently is going to cause some people to be irritated and he wanted to see how they reacted, were they going to roll with the punches and just be polite saying this is what I ordered walk through it professionally or are they going to be a real jerk to the waiter and waitress that starts painting a little bit of a picture and apparently it was successful in a few cases of him finding people that frankly, he didn't want in his company. I think you can probably do the same type of thing to find out who you're dealing with. 

    You can probably do that in the hiring process with for instance administrative people. Just think creatively, have them deal with a variety of people and see how they're going to react in real-world situations. I think that may be one of the best ways to do it in that it's not just on paper, you're getting a real life feel for what this person's made of and the other thing about combining real-world situations with your team but also have a quick trigger if you are finding problems that you're not going to let things linger on too long if there is something that may be serious down the line for your company and allow that person who may be a lot of trouble to get a little bit too comfortable in there and you to be relying on them too much.

    Lydia: Yeah that's that's a great point. I know in my own interview process when I'm hiring people one of the things I always try to do is to have a bad suggestion that I say I really want to implement this and ask what is your opinion on it, like you know how long would it take, you know would you be able to do this. So for example if I'm hiring somebody for ads and performance marketing and i'll say you know i really want to do more with LinkedIn ads and move away from you know the other Facebook and social media knowing that LinkedIn ads is like significantly more expensive and isn't quite able to hone and just see how see whether or not they react in sort of like a dogmatic personality way of like this is awful or if they're too much of a yes yes yes and I'm really kind of looking for like are they going to be able to sort of educate me and teach me about their opinion without getting flustered.

    Pete: Absolutely. Yeah because at some point you're going to be sitting across from them and in a meeting and you can find out more about them that way.

    Lydia: It's really interesting to see how people react. Another thing with designers for instance like I'll show them a mock-up of something that I know is really ugly that is something that we had somebody else do and it was like a first draft and it's just painfully bad and then I'll say like I really want to implement this style throughout the website, would you be able to copy this style and do it and you can just see really quickly whether or not there's somebody who will educate or guide you to the right direction or who just like shuts down when asked to do something so yeah and then it's always like you have to clear the air after and be like by the way, I know that was a bad idea I just know that I'm not going to have the right ideas all the time but I want to make sure you can tell me when they're wrong. So that's one thing I regularly do. One of the other things you said is in the hiring process you want to check for people who are obsessed with rules, how do you check for that?

    Pete: I think we've all met somebody that's trying a bit too hard and you're right that is having a hundred percent accuracy on any one of these things. You're only getting good about so well in any one of these situations but that person that lives a world in nothing but black and white, I don't know they would function in most corporate environments. In that project you just described, okay the one you described sounded awful but if you have you know a problem at work, there's going to be a lot of different answers that are pretty close to right.

    There may be some ethical or legal issues that are always going to be black and white but somebody that seems to be trying a bit too hard to fit in the box and I know there's some of the personality tests that they can take in various companies that try and weed some of these out. The people that seem to be saying to you that they are sinless in their thought processes at all times. I frankly don't know whether to have a good feeling about those types of hires because most people I work with and have worked with find a little bit more nuance in the world and I personally would have difficulty having a good sense to that person that just seem to be forcing it.

    Lydia: Do you factor in the myers-briggs type personality tests? Do you think about sort of like are there certain ones to watch out for?

    Pete: That is not an area that I'm an expert in and I think a lot of those people taking the test especially if they get it in the hiring process are going to try and think of what the best answer to be hired but yeah I'm not opposed to them but I do find myself wondering at times whether you're getting a full picture or you're getting an answer that people want you have.

    Disruptive Behavior Pyramid Intervention

    (13:02 - 16:47)

    Lydia: Yeah well you know changing gears a bit, Pete I was wondering if you could just elaborate on the disruptive behavior pyramid intervention that you went into in the book I found it to just be so incredibly helpful that I'd love for you to take me through it.

    Pete: Absolutely and it's so easy and just makes a lot of sense and it's a glorified “three strikes and you're out” type approach when dealing with an employee and I should give credit - it was created out of Vanderbilt University by a Professor Jerry Hickson and Dr. Hickson basically has this three strikes and rattling said type of approach.

    This begins with if you have an employee that is being disrupted that's causing a problem that you're catching them in a mistake that doesn't quite reach the level of "You're immediately fired". The first step is kind of a conversational intervention of hey we've identified this problem we're concerned about it. Lydia we want to make sure this doesn't happen again okay. That's kind of the feel that first one. So that's step one.

    Step two, when the problem arises again, you're going to want to have some documentation of it. Kind of the for this called the come-to-jesus moment or the moment of truth type of thing where you say Lydia this is what we found, we've talked to so and so and again we want to make sure that this is not going to be something that you think is acceptable kind of leave it there.

    If it happens a third time and this is where it takes real escalation. This is where something is put into writing I guess what we often call the what the PIP, the Performance Improvement Plan that can begin that step out of the door for an employee, going to them and essentially saying this is your last chance, you need to to follow what we're saying, you're going to be signing off on this agreeing that there's concern here that you understand that the company is not going to be accepting this behavior anymore and then if things don't change after that, the final step is termination or moving them on to whatever the company is most comfortable with but it walks through a set of steps that I think tracks with where most of us are, from both wanting a culture that can stand up to bad behavior but also goes along with the fact that a lot of us like giving second chances, want second chances and that frankly from a legal standpoint we're going to want something documented before we pull the trigger on letting somebody go and I know one of the things I've heard from my friends that do hiring and firing regularly is, there's a sense of guilt that no matter how bad that employee is that you've put them in a tough position personally and professionally by terminating them or dropping them to a lower position in the company but through that four-step process you've given it people every chance in the book to be able to do the right thing and if they don't, it's their fault.


    (16:48 - 22:11)

    Lydia: Yeah I love the documentation part. One thing you mentioned in the book is that if you're worried about yourself and protecting yourself, you need to be you know really great note-taker and document everything. It's one thing to take notes but what do you actually do with them in a way that protects you or are you sharing them you know especially in a sort of small business environment where you find somebody is perhaps setting you up for failure or being very toxic and you take notes about this is exactly what they're asking me to do, what could you be doing with these notes?

    Pete: And the way you just described that is exactly the dilemma that's out there and in some cases the answer may be nothing in that you find yourself in a situation that is impossible to win and you simply get yourself out of a bad situation after finding another job. But sometimes life is more complicated or you may be in a position, for instance I talked to somebody the other day that was just years away from their pension being fully vested. They did not want to leave their job and while they didn't want to fight they felt like they needed to defend themselves so that they wouldn't be losing something of great value to them. B ut they were coming under attack from a colleague who was doing all sorts of bad things and what they walked through and I'm going to find out whether they went through with it was they were prepared to walk up to a certain line of going to, in their case, the general counsel of the company and saying here's what I've documented and I have time-stamped it, I have people that have witnessed some of these things and frankly they were going to use it as some leverage for either their exit package or to hopefully stay on the job, one of the two because sometimes you've got to play and it's not playing dirty but you need to use the tools that you have especially if what's being done to you violates all sorts of company policies and bad behavior is being ignored to the extent that your own job is at risk. So there's a certain amount of power that can come with it but I never encourage that unless it's the last step but sometimes if you need to to protect yourself, you're going to want those things in writing.

    The one other thing that I would say is that at times managers and leaders of companies are so oblivious to what's going on in the office politics world. I'm not saying oblivious across the board because obviously if they're at the top of the company they have some strong skills but they may not care at all about what's going on a few steps below them and you just may want to wake some of these people up to the point that they realize they've got a problem. Again all of those types of things do come with some risk but you never want to be in the position of having your hand forced wondering if you're going to be forced out of a job and thinking gee you know it really would have been good to write all that stuff down if only I had done that when it's pretty easy and these days with email, send an email to yourself if you were facing problems that you just may need to document at some point.

    Lydia: Yeah I love the sending an email to yourself because then it's time-stamped and you can always you know forward it later if you need to sort of say here are the notes of why I was assigned and you know I emailed it to myself to make sure that I did this or just to keep track of what you know what they were asking of me and and you'll have it you know at least a dated thing that you can reference.

    Pete: That's right. I know we have a lot of small business owners online today, they get very busy and they run into employees that are problems or they may have a manager that's not supposed to be doing what they're doing and you start rationalizing as leaders, all sorts of different things of why you don't need to write something down and maybe it's just at the time it seems like a whole lot of headaches you're going to tell the person such-and-such about what they need to do. But if you're not putting it in writing, you may never need that email again. But you want to put something in writing in case you need to take action in the future. If not, you're starting the process at what could be the end of a bad relationship inside an organization rather than what could have been. So if you've got problems, making note of them and hopefully you don't need them but yeah there's nothing bad that can come with documenting bad behavior.

    Hiring HR Leaders

    (22:12 - 28:22)

    Lydia: Yeah and one thing that you also suggested that I loved is when it comes to hiring HR leaders, you want to make sure they have a strong ethical compass. How do you when you're hiring for an HR leader you know understand do they have a strong ethical compass?

    Pete: Well, I think that comes in an interview. I think it's finding out if you're the CEO you want somebody that isn't just going to be a "yes" person, they're going to be somebody that wants to do things in an ethical manner, somebody that is and this is something I hear from my friends in HR constantly, they need to be someone that can be at that level around the table in the boardroom that can have a tough conversation and stand up if something's wrong. Where this can be a challenge is, well I guess the unethical CEO for instance isn't going to be looking out for that HR person that is looking to trip them up but somebody when you're asking them in that initial process, we have values we stand behind those values and we want to treat our people well and you say I expect you to to follow our guidelines and if there are problems I want to know about them, you're either going to get that ethical person that understands your values and signs off on them or you're going to get somebody who goes behind your back and do and violates everything that you just told them to do from day one. You're going to find out pretty quickly. You're not always going to be effective in screening out every bad leader but I think if somebody is told very quickly we want you to do your job and here's our standards and we don't accept harassment, we're not going to be an organization that is okay with retaliation we're not going to and pop our legal liability by hiding things all over the organization. I think most people are going to get that message and if not you can move them on.

    Lydia: Yeah, I mean that's a great point, the earlier the better is what you get to in the book. I want to just bring in some of the questions we received from attendants and people as they were RSVP. One of the first questions we got was "I'm new to the role of hiring manager. What advice do you have for me for conducting my first interviews and are there any books or blog posts that you would suggest reading?" I would start by saying read this.

    Pete: I like that answer. What I think they can do and should encourage within their culture and really make it a group effort is bring as many people as possible into the process and that means bringing your hiring managers, encourage and you'll find the great cultures encourage employees that when there's a vacancy ask them to recruit their friends which is always a bit of a tale as to whether you've got a good company and people want their friends to join, those are a couple of things I think are very important to broaden the tent.

    The other thing that I hear constantly and it's proven almost a hundred percent of the time and I compared a lot of things. I may have so many experiences in life so I think back to the dating process and that is when usually if you had a terrible first date and things were going badly, rarely did they get a whole lot better along the line. I think the hiring process can also show a lot of either good things or bad things and want that process to be consistent with the way you want to have your company go. You're not rushing through the process just to get a pulse. You want to find somebody with the pulse and hire them. Take the time to get to know that person, feel like you're hiring someone for the long run rather than just to get the paperwork done. So I think anything that drives that positive relationship on both sides. You're not rushing but you're not having things too slow, you're having good communication in there, assessed through some interviews where people are making or sending body language telling me to essentially get out and I would get apologies from people a few months after for you're so lucky you didn't get that job. That's probably the most blatant signal of all that you've got a problem but the other thing with that is don't and I talked about this a lot in the book having somebody frankly tricked into a job that no one else in the organization wants. It's a terrible thing to do to that new person but it's also a major flashing red light to what should be to the rest of the organization of why do none of us want this role, why do we want to stick some poor person into the into the task of doing something that no one around the table would be willing to take on. So a HR leader that wants things cleaned up before they invite somebody else in to move into the house.

    Differentiating Between Toxic Individuals and Company Culture

    (28:23 - 31:28)

    Lydia: Yeah I think that's a great point is you know to determine whether or not that is just a role that nobody wants and what do we need to clean up ahead of time. Another great question that came in from an attendee is "How do you differentiate between someone who is toxic and somebody whose last role or company was toxic?" If they are bad mouthing their last company, it's a negative thing, but how do you deal with if they were the issue or the other issue was that company.

    Pete: Yeah and it can be a minefield unfortunately that a lot of people face in the interview process in that there are some companies with terrible cultures. People going through tough things and the answer that they may give in an interview as to why did you leave your last employer it may be very complicated, it may be very understandable but it's likely going to send up a lot of red flags if you talk about your last employer. I think that's where honest discussions and careful discussions by the person being interviewed are smart, but from the company's standpoint of what you're screening out, I think that's where you want to ask some good follow-up questions, get to know this person, ask them that question about their boss or their previous situations and get what you can out of them.

    Everything is going to be a bit of a judgment call but I think there are some opportunities for instance someone leaves a bad situation with a just a tyrant of a previous supervisor. You can call the person the tyrant or you to talk about you faced challenges in being able to get things done, you want to work in a respectful environment and you're excited about what you've heard about how great this company that you're interviewing with is to work for and you've always had lots of friends and other companies you look forward to building great relationships here. That last part is a whole lot better than my boss was a jerk and I think that by having those open discussions and asking people more than yes-or-no questions, it's always going to be a judgment call but the more information that you get out of them, the better that judgment is going to be and if they end up being the problem several months down the line and you realize you've made a mistake, don't be afraid to pull the trigger because it's probably going to be best for all sides.

    Dealing with Toxic Personality

    (31:29 - 34:32)

    Lydia: Yeah it's a great lead-in to this next question an attendee submitted which is "How do you remove a toxic personality if they are related to the owner but report to you?" feel like it's a very personal, somebody is in that situation right now.

    Pete: Now that is frankly one of those things and I talk about this a lot in the book, is at times the saying of "It is what it is" plays in in a big way, if you've been assigned to manage the boss's flunky kid who's a jerk, the little jerk is going to have a job for the rest of his life, you're kind of stuck and that may be one of those great opportunities where number one, find out as much as you can about the culture around you, find out from others in what I call it as safe away as possible how the family has been dealt with because for instance if you're dealing with family members odds are there's probably more than one of those family members in that business and find out essentially the lay of the land.

    Know what you're walking into, if you think you're going to need to go to the CEO at some point, much like that old saying of "a good lawyer never asks a question in a courtroom that they don't know the answer to" - know what that CEO's answer is going to be when you broach this subject and the answer may be I'm in a terrible situation I'm not going to win this one and I can either suck it up and move on or I can risk my job and odds are when it comes to family, no matter how awful that family member may be, you as an outsider are not going to win that battle. You might but odds are you won't and you need to think through that process and that's really one of the big reasons I wrote The Arsonist in the Office, is that I found myself in the middle of what seemed like a battlefield and nobody had handed me a flak jacket, I didn't have a helmet, I didn't have anything else that I needed and I was moving a hundred miles an hour to try and protect myself. but really had no idea what I should be thinking through, how I might want to think about reacting and something that gave me a some sort of a field manual for dealing with it and that type of thinking process of first and foremost am i starting a war that I'm not going to be able to win is really a good place for all managers to be if they're in that person's position.

    Developing Great Culture for Hourly Workers

    (34:33 - 38:45)

    Lydia: Yeah it's a great point. I just have a question that I wanted to ask you. nine out of ten employees said they would take less money for a meaningful job, how can employers you know think about building meaning into the roles? Especially if they're hiring at Quick Service Franchise restaurant, these are hourly jobs, how can they build more meaning into the roles to really develop a great culture?

    Pete: Yeah and I think there's so many examples of this, and I talk through sports analogy quite a bit, that some of the most successful coaches are ones that are able to find players who have roles and understand them and know that they're part of something bigger. Now not every restaurant for instance, not every short-order cook is going to be motivated for the entire length of their career. But to do that for one role and you're going to have transitions, but you want people at all times to understand first and foremost what the mission is and that you're appreciated and so especially these days where there's for instance those restaurants and there's so much in the news about the PPP loans being that bridge for a few months and then hopefully business gets moving again that understanding among employees especially right now knowing that folks and they ought to be doing this as often as possible in team meetings that what they're doing today may affect their future for years. And so, there has been no better time than right now to be having those discussions that everybody understands what's going on in the company. I mean not down to the dollars and cents but knowing we need to execute in the next few months in the next year to keep things going because right now especially everybody understands there's a lot at stake and you want people to feel loved and respected but beyond that, informed about what's going on because frankly in a few different ways number one you get a you get a better employee.

    They understand their role but they probably understand your role better as a leader within the company. Humanize yourself as a leader to let them know what you're going through to not only still be the boss but people, understand you're feeling the way that they may be feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders right now and that your life is important to them, there's good energy that can come from those honest discussions right now as much as they can but that respect and that feeling of belonging and purpose are huge right now.

    Lydia: Yeah just transparency and empathy is what it all comes down to I think to build meaning but yeah this was really great I want to be respectful of your time. Unless there are any final questions I just wanted to promote your book again, it’s really great and the people who submitted questions ahead of time, we will be ordering you and mailing you a copy of the book The Arsonist In The Office. Really great guide on just how to fireproof your workplace from bad toxic people and how to promote a really great culture. Pete thank you so much for coming on this is really great.

    Pete: Thanks for having me this was fun. Take care.

    Lydia: Thank you guys.

    For more resources and great webinars like today's Q&A, check out the Workstream blog. And for more details on how we can help you turn inefficiencies into new opportunities, contact us today.

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    Lydia Fayal

    Lydia Fayal Hall is Head of Marketing at Workstream. She previously held leadership roles at OneSignal and Chalkup, acquired by Microsoft. Lydia has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. She is an alum of UPenn, Johns Hopkins, and YCombinator IK12. Originally from Stonington, CT, Lydia now resides in San Francisco, CA with her Australian Shepherd, Indy.

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