This post isn’t about whether you should allow dogs in the office. But it’s an excellent example of the types of tough decisions a manager has to make when balancing employee perks and the demands of a job.
When I made my customary stop at the dry cleaners on Tuesday morning, there were no dogs there. The atmosphere was drastically different than the place I had become accustomed to.
The woman who cheerfully and efficiently greets me each visit always has her sidekick with her, a tiny Yorkshire Terrier, named Athena. Athena is quiet and well-mannered, friendly but not overbearing. On occasion, I’ve had to be careful not to trip over her as I enter or leave, but she’s never truly in the way and I like the warmth that it adds to a mundane errand I run.
I’ve watched many a customer dote over this little puffball of fur and observed Athena’s mom just beam with pride. There are always animated conversations that involve Athena; it’s a happy place, full of life. (In fact, I’m just now realizing that I know the dog’s name, but not the employee’s name!) Last week, Athena had company — a newly adopted, gorgeous 9-week-old Australian shepherd, and even I, a dog-lover, wondered how anyone could focus on their job and watch a puppy. Yet I was so taken with P.J.’s beauty and how incredibly well-behaved he was, it didn’t strike me as an issue.
This week, expecting to see the playful pup, I opened the door and was met with stark quiet, a most obvious emptiness that was foreign to my experiences there. The employee wore a smile, but something was different. I immediately asked about the dogs, and with just the tiniest hint of a somber mood and astonishingly absent of any bitterness, she explained that the owner felt the shedding of dog hair in a dry cleaning business wasn’t going to work anymore. It made me wonder what the complete story was, and I’m sure I’ll never know. It’s likely there were many factors, and also as likely that it may have been the best decision for the business. Still I couldn’t help but notice the difference in the environment.
Of course, there are never any absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decisions in these cases. Managers, leaders, and business owners must look out for all stakeholders, including customers, vendors, and all employees when evaluating what an employee can and can’t do or have in the workplace. The reason these decisions are so hard is because what is best for one might not be best for the other.
There are a ton of examples of these types of situations. Are flex hours acceptable? Can an employee hang personal pictures in their office space or should the look be consistent with the corporate image? Can a manager insist that an employee organize the unsightly piles of paperwork from a person’s desk? Can an employee work from home when they feel like it?
So how should a manager approach these tricky situations that involve a preference with an employee that may conflict with a traditional workplace environment?
- Be genuinely open to what’s right for the business. When both parties can be focused on what’s best for the business objectives, it’s likely that everyone can live with the answer, even if it’s not what you wanted. And remember that the way it has always been done before is not the only measure of what’s right moving forward.
- Establish a time period, where you’ll review and assess how it’s going. When trying something new, things will likely crop up that you didn’t anticipate. A pilot program sets the expectation that you’ll be testing it out, and gives everyone a mindset to objectively evaluate the successes and challenges of it. Talk about the fact that you may have to nix it all together, depending on the evaluation. Hope for the best, but think through what could go wrong so you can figure out how to prevent issues at all.
- Be clear to everyone in the organization when and why any changes were made. If some employees are allowed to work in ways that appear unique or special, it will create resentment, unless you can state legitimate reasons that explain your rationale. Of course, you want to design policies that are fair. But fair can result in differences as well. For example, it may be completely appropriate to allow telecommuting for one job function but not another, based on the work itself and how that person(s) interacts with others. You can’t have a manufacturing worker conduct assembly line work from home, but you could have a data analyst work from a remote location without any issues.
We need to tap into ways that make the workplace more enjoyable to an employee, because it does impact productivity. But both the manager and the employee need to focus on what’s best for the organization when making the tough decisions. When the goals are clear and understood, the decisions become simple.