Last month, I wrote a blog on leadership: Influence=Leadership. I emphasized the importance of leaders sharing their human side and making emotional connections with the employees whom they lead.  To quote leadership maven John Maxwell: leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand. 
However, making human connections and demonstrating emotion are not without some legal risks. Sadly, the laws which are intended to eradicate discrimination can make human connections dicey. Plus, both women and men may experience different types of gender bias when it comes to making such connections and demonstration of emotions.
This blog deals with the issue of making human connections.  Next month, I will address gender bias relative to connections and emotion.
When employees speak negatively about leaders, they often complain about what are often called micro-inequities.  One example: “He does not even say hello when he is next to me in the elevator.” 
This is more than a micro-inequity. It is what I call “workplace existential.”  Don’t I exist? 
Leaders cannot afford to have lengthy conversations with every employee. But they must recognize their existence. The little things—or the absence of them—can go a long way.
On one client engagement survey, a leader scored very high.  The comments involved less his leadership style or results and more his recognition of the mere existence of the employees whom he leads.
“He always says hello.”  “He asked me my name and then, when he saw me weeks later, he remembered it.”
Appreciation is critical. We all know that.  
But before we get to appreciation, we need to get to recognition. And, recognition starts with an employee’s existence.
Of  course, developing human connections involves more than saying hello or a non-verbal nod or smile.  Sometimes, it involves conversations. And here is where the law and the humanity may collide. An example illustrates the point.
A leader sees an employee who is visibly upset. He is in tears. What should the leader do?
The human reaction is (or at least should be) to ask what’s wrong?  But there are two risks in her doing so.
One, the employee may not want to answer  As a result, he may resent the well-intended question that makes him uncomfortable.
Two, the employee may disclose personal information (for example, illness of a child). If the employee is subject to an adverse action later, the employee may claim it was because of what he disclosed.
Does that mean the leader should say noting?  Absolutely not!  
Rather than asking “What’s wrong?” the leader might say, “I can see you are upset. Would you like to talk?” The leaders shows interest in the employee’s wellbeing, but also respect for what may be private. It is easier for an employee to say “no thank you,” than “I don’t want to tell you.”
But what about the second risk?  What if the employee does disclose personal information? Couldn’t the employee argue later that was the basis for any adverse action with which he disagrees?
Absolutely. There is a legal risk in being human.  But there is a legal risk in not being human, too.
There are many policies and procedures we put in place to minimize our exposure to litigation.  Often forgotten is the most important one: good relationships.
While there are exceptions, in my experience, employees who feel cared about are less likely to sue.  Treat your employees at arm’s length and the emotional inhibitor to litigation may be lost.
Putting aside the litigation risk, there is the business risk. How can we expect engagement if the employee feels he or she is just part of headcount? 
The issue of human connections arises big time in the mentoring relationship where the employee may share voluntarily (don’t ask) child rearing and other personal plans. While there is a risk in receiving this information, there is also a risk in a “ business only” mentoring relationship.  Can you really mentor about work without considering life, too?
We know the importance of work-life blend. I would suggest that we also need to blend human connections with legal considerations.
We pay a big price if we let fear of litigation take the humanity out of leadership. We just need to be thoughtful about how we are thoughtful.
“What’s wrong” is but one of many well-intended questions or comments that can create risk, but which can be reframed to make connections with lower risk.  Here’s but one more example for you to think about—a homework assignment, if you will.
You see an employee has pictures of children on her desk. Do you ask or say anything? If yes, what do you say? What don’t you say?
We will return to this example next month. We also will discuss how gender bias may affect attempts at human connection and displays of emotion.
Talk with you then!          
Follow me on Twitter at:  @Jonathan_HR_Law
The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: