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ecently, the following question about an employee complaint appeared on a message board for Human Resources Professionals:

What Would You Do?

You are the HR Manager of a small accounting firm consisting of NINE women and ONE man. Once a week, the water jug must be changed, and the women usually ask the one man to replace the 25 pound water jug when it gets empty.

One day, the man comes to you and complains that since everyone drinks water, he should not be the only one called [upon] to change it. He has threatened to complain to the Vice President and the ‪‎EEOC if this office practice continues. What do YOU do as the manager?

The responses posted by the HR pros were troubling and subtly dangerous.  Not dangerous in the sense that they’d leave the firm open to a gender-discrimination law suit.  They wouldn’t.  Rather, they were dangerous in the sense that they’d contribute nothing to the well-being of the firm but instead leave a gaping wound untreated.

Here is a representative selection of responses:

  • “Change to a tankless water service that connects directly through the pipes in the kitchen. Ditch the bottles, save money, make everyone happy and save your HR headaches for more important things.”
  • “Tell the Ladies to ‘step up.’”
  • “Make it a requirement for everyone to change the bottle so there are no gender discrimination issues unless there were disability concerns.”

These seem like reasonable solutions to the employee’s complaint.  Why would I call these sensible solutions dangerous? After all, they went straight to asking others to “do their part,” or to use plumbing to obviate the need for anyone to swap water jugs at all.

What makes these responses dangerous is exemplified in the first response above, “Save your HR headaches for more important things.”  There may be HR matters that are more urgent, but nothing in HR is more important than what’s going on here.  Each HR professional responding to this (hypothetical?) query took this employee’s complaint at face value.  They are all treating this as a gender-discrimination, bottle-swap problem.  It is not.

The improv principle “Be Obvious” suggests that in any scenario requiring a response, we respond without trying to be smart or clever and without trying to be politically correct (but still having deep empathy).  We act instead from what is most present in our mind in response to the offers we’re getting.

This is a human problem, a disgruntled and disengaged worker problem, a morale, teamwork, and culture problem.  Potentially, this is a malcontent, toxic-employee, corrosive to the whole team problem.

There are two principles from theater improv that, if employed, would drastically change any response to this complaint—the principle of OFFERS and the principle BE OBVIOUS.

Offers in improv are all the sources of information we can respond to.  The words someone says are one source of offers, but there are other sources as well—body language, tone of voice, context, timing, facial expressions, etc.  In this case, the context of such a small office including one man is an offer that cannot be ignored. Had this complaint come to me, I would have been stunned.  I would not primarily interpret this as a complaint about being asked to load the water bottle.

Which brings me to the Be Obvious principle.  It suggests that in any scenario requiring a response, we respond without trying to be smart or clever and without trying to be politically correct (but still having deep empathy).  We act instead from what is most present in our mind in response to the offers we’re getting.

What’s obvious to me is not that there’s a gender-bias problem here.  It’s not even obvious that the complainer is troubled by being asked to do the bottle-swap.  What’s obvious to me is, “Really?  You’re threatening to take this up the chain of command, and even to a government oversight body designated to punish sexism in the workplace?”  And from there, what’s obvious to me is, “I can’t believe it. That’s crazy.”  And then, most importantly, I arrive at the obvious question, “What’s really going on here?”

Therefore, what I posted on this HR forum in response to the query that had others re-plumbing their offices was:

Ask [him] for a sit down. Once there, tell him that you’re committed to resolving the issue. “But before we talk about the water bottles, I’d really love to know how things are going for you here in general. Are there any aspects of your job and your time here that you particularly love? Other than the water, what other problems or complaints do you have? What do you complain about to your wife/friends when you go home?

“Are we using you to your full potential? What responsibilities would you like to be taking on in the next year or two?”

Chances are, if he’s complaining about changing the water, the real issue is something else. Probably, he thinks his strengths are under-utilized.  Likely, he thinks he’s not appreciated for the expertise he brings to the table and which he would like to have recognized.   Perhaps his work flow is being interrupted.

After having THAT conversation, say something like, “Boy, that water bottle sure is heavy for me. I don’t blame you for not wanting the strain of lifting it.” Then ask what he would like to see happen with respect to the water bottle. Chances are, he’ll say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t mind that much. Nevermind.”

To go straight to mitigating the complaint misses the very real problem that this employee has made evident. Sooner or later, he’ll be back, complaining of a new symptom of the very same underlying problem.

You can avoid a law suit that way, but you won’t improve morale, improve teamwork, improve communication, retain valuable employees, or begin to flush out toxic ones and set the stage to let them go.

Following the counsel of the HR pros who advise going straight to addressing the complaint itself, you put out a fire, but you leave the embers smoldering.

There is clearly a genuine and impactful problem here that will affect the employee’s contribution to the company.  And it is not the bottle-swap complaint he came forward with. If the problem underlying the complaint is ignored, the cost to the company will be great.  Not only will his performance suffer, but because of the contagiousness of discontent, everyone’s performance will suffer.

There’s one more matter to look at with respect to this complaint—dividing labor according to ability, facility, and brilliance.  Organizations that give tasks to the people best suited to completing them efficiently and well, while developing everyone’s skills and talents to increase capabilities and capacity, far outpace organizations where it is demanded that equal work means identical work.  In an office where I was the man who changed the water jug, the five women I worked with could have done it (indeed did when I was on vacation). In this case, I was the strongest, and my coworkers preferred to have me do it. I could do it in less than half the time with significantly less risk of damage to the equipment and less risk of injury. And of course, I didn’t mind.  Here again is that principle, Be Obvious.  When it comes to a brief but strenuous task, the person for whom it will be briefest and least strenuous is the obvious choice, regardless of gender.

Improv training, and the employment of improv principles allows HR pros and managers to address the surface issues that arise by delving into the real problems underneath.  And, by extension, they can elevate the work efforts and work products of their people, not by putting bandages on deep wounds, but by fostering health.

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