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What Corporate America Can Learn From Physicians: It’s All In How You Treat People

By M. Penny Levin, Ph.D. and Judith Lindenberger, MBA

Published in OD/Leadership News, ASTD, May 2006

Recently, the literature in medical economics has caught up with conventional wisdom in terms of medical malpractice lawsuits. What has become apparent is that people are less likely to sue doctors whom they believe have acted in their best interest and who communicate with them clearly and kindly. In plain English, doctors have discovered that good bedside manner is good business.

This same principle holds true for business—good corporate bedside manner translates into sound risk management.

A 2004 Chubb Group of Insurance Companies’ survey of top executives at 300 privately held companies found that 26 percent had been sued by an employee or former employee. Twenty-two percent reported that employees had filed discrimination or harassment complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) during the past few years.

Forty-four percent of the executives in the same Chubb survey reported that they felt it was likely that they will be sued by an employee or former employee this year. Fifty percent of the respondents expect an employee to file an EEOC complaint. While the respondents estimated that it would cost more than $100,000 to settle an employee lawsuit, 10 percent of them predicted that it would cost at least $1 million. Employee lawsuits increase a company’s insurance premiums, directly and negatively affect its profit and loss statement, and tarnish its image in the marketplace.

Poor corporate bedside manner also affects employee retention. It is said that people don’t leave their jobs; they leave their bosses. According to a 2002 Watson Wyatt study, “Strategic Rewards Charting the Course Forward: Maximizing the Value of Reward Programs,” two of the five main reasons top performers leave a company are dissatisfaction with management and conflicts with supervisors.

Cheryl Daniels, age 52, of Florence, New Jersey, former Development Officer for a nonprofit organization, recalls asking her new boss to help her prioritize which projects she needed to seek funding for. “Instead of engaging in beneficial dialogue, he shook his finger at me and asked me who I thought I was to challenge him or to ask him questions. At first I was dumfounded, and didn’t want to leave an organization that I had invested eighteen years in, but within weeks I found another job and gave notice.”

In businesses small and large, new leaders, particularly those with technical backgrounds, are often thrown into supervisory roles with little training and no ongoing mentoring or support. This can easily lead to making errors in judgment, such as mishandling communications with employees or making potentially costly mistakes, such as asking an illegal question during an employment interview. The upside is that leaders can be easily taught skills that will make them more effective.

Ten years ago, when Michael Rosone, now age 43, of Flanders, New Jersey, was Owner and COO of a commercial air conditioning and heating company, he drafted a non-compete agreement and mailed it to his employees’ homes over a weekend without having previously discussed his intentions with those receiving it. “I figured that it was well thought out, my intentions were good, and that I had a solid enough relationship with my employees that it wouldn’t be an issue. Needless to say that wasn’t the best leadership move. It escalated into a severe issue with ramifications that would last upwards of six months. After publicly acknowledging that the handing of the communication was poor, explaining my rationale and negotiating some of the terms of the agreement, we wound up with a mutually acceptable document. It was definitely poor corporate bedside manner. What I learned from that situation is that open proactive communication, when done authentically, is paramount to effective leadership.”

Employees, like medical patients, rarely sue people with whom they have good relationships. When leaders show respect by taking the time to talk and to listen, employees are less likely to file a lawsuit. In Medical Economics, “10 Ways to Guarantee a Lawsuit,” July 8, 2005, Alice Burkin, a plaintiff’s attorney in Boston, is quoted as saying, “ The best way to avoid getting sued is to establish good relationships.” By teaching and monitoring good corporate bedside manner, risk is reduced and employee satisfaction enhanced.

The typical issues that can lead to lawsuits include recruiting and hiring, employee performance discussions, and discrimination and harassment claims. These issues can generally be well contained if they are handled in an ethical, appropriate and consistent manner. In the hands of a newly promoted manager with inadequate preparation and poor corporate bedside manner, however, a lawsuit is more likely.

Here are five tips that Corporate America can learn from physicians:

1. Be empathetic and genuine. Patients are angered by subtle behaviors that make them feel their needs are unimportant says Susan Keane Baker, a consultant who advises physicians and hospitals on improving patient satisfaction rates (Chicago Business, “Tough Sell: Good Bedside Manner,” September 25, 2004). In the corporate world, o ne of the worst responses a leader can make in response to an employee’s complaint is to say “You are being too sensitive.” or “Don’t be silly.” If an employee voices a concern, give him or her your full attention. Ask open-ended questions and get the facts. Find out what the employee wants.

2. Be fair and consistent. Organizations need to be proactive by developing, publicizing and following company policies that treat employees with respect and reflect legal standards . In turn, leaders need training on EEOC laws, company policies and company values.

3. Listen with an open mind. When an employee comes to a leader with a complaint, it is the quality of the time the leader gives that is important. Your tone is as important as your words. If you can’t do what the employee wants, calmly explain your rationale and business reason. Ask the employee if he or she has any questions and be prepared to answer them. On the other hand, if it makes good business sense to change a policy, do so, and thank the employee for bringing the suggestion to your attention.

4. Take action and follow up. Any time an employee makes a complaint; take action, within one or two days, to investigate the complaint fully. Document everything that is done with regard to the investigation. And, follow up with the employee to assess his or her morale.

5. Create a sense of psychological safety. Employees need to feel that it is safe for them to voice negative views. Leaders can make this possible by seeking regular feedback through anonymous surveys or other safe forums before bad events transpire. Finally, ensure that no one is retaliated against for bringing a potential complaint to management.

Most new managers are expected to sink or swim, with little training or coaching, and the majority of them sink at first. Poor corporate bedside manner can lead to lowered morale, loss of productivity, increased employee turnover and lawsuits. Good business dictates that corporations invest ongoing training and coaching for managers to maintain professional relationships and practice good corporate bedside manner.

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