Extinguishing office fires before the alarm goes off

Filed under: Focus |

An unexpected office crisis impedes the day’s order of business and shifts priorities from production to patchwork. How can a manager, who is constantly putting out fires at the office, keep employees on task and objectives on track?

According to a survey conducted by Accountemps, a specialized staffing service for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals, 150 executives from the country’s 1,000 largest companies reported on the ramifications of office-related crises. Seventy-one percent said they respond to business emergencies at least once a week, and 35 percent of those said they fight fires every day.

Gina Giroux is the branch manager of the Englewood, Colo.-based Accountemps, which also provides temporary staffing services for the Colorado Springs area.

Giroux cited some of the issues that interrupt the “business as usual” routine: meeting cancellations because of a CEO’s travel delays, a sick employee, losing an account and running out of time on a project. Other obstructions to productivity, Giroux said, include technical or office equipment breakdowns, longer-than-expected appointments and unanticipated visits from. Paramount to work-related time killers are employee issues, from personal problems to poor performances.

Max Messmer is chairman of Accountemps and author of “Managing Your Career for Dummies.” He said that “a good manager identifies ways to mitigate routine problems and respond quickly to unexpected ones, freeing up more time for bigger-picture issues.”

Messmer offered the following crisis-management tips: “Develop detailed plans that include solutions for handling worst-case scenarios, and conduct regular fire drills to put those plans into practice. Delegate and assign responsibilities to staff, giving them the authority to handle problems on their own. Define the problem, and do not treat every bump in the road as a potential disaster. Create project timelines and adhere to them, but build in contingencies for unexpected setbacks. Assess departmental goals and adopt change instead of reacting to problems.”

Companies are outsourcing more, delegating the firefighting and crisis intervention to consultants and contractors, freeing managers to do their jobs. Sam Sargent is the owner of Human Resource Management Systems. He has consulted in human resources for 10 years. Prior to owning his business, he spent 19 years as a human resource specialist.

Fighting employee-related fires is one reason that companies call on Sargent. Employee-performance issues can wreak havoc with operations, and bringing in an outside expert to facilitate performance improvement is one way to avoid legal. If there is an individual who is not making the grade, companies may contract with outsiders to assess, coach and counsel, Sargent said.

If a company if facing layoffs or an employee firing, hiring a consultant to assist with outplacement is a way to avoid lawsuits. Many times, Sargent said, employers will go the extra mile to assist an employee who is about to be fired or laid off, in exchange for a signed document that states the employee will not sue.

Managers who have the required technical skills but lack the know-how to supervise people ignite more than a few fires within an organization. Sargent will douse those fires for corporations by providing management and leadership training.

Sargent said companies once hired human resource generalists, whose duties ranged from benefit compensation education to training to hiring and firing. It is difficult today, he said, for human resource professionals to have this overall knowledge. For example, Sargent said, companies offer multiple benefit compensation packages today, and human resource managers cannot keep up with each. Many corporations use benefit specialists to help employees asses their needs and access insurance information.

Sargent said the most common reason employers outsource human resource functions is to train employees. Training is not ongoing, he said, and it is more cost effective to bring in a trainer on an as-needed basis instead of having a full-time employee.

Employers also outsource recruiting and hiring functions. They hire consultants to set up compensation packages and determine salaries. Employees are sophisticated when it comes to employee relations, Sargent said, and employers are understand the importance of ensuring that people are hired for the right fit and appropriate compensation.

Whatever the reason for outsourcing, Sargent said the consultant should be a “strategic, managerial and tactical partner” with the business or corporation. “The purpose of outsourcing,” he said, “is not to save money, it’s to gain value.”

- Editorial@csbj.com