“Employee For a Day”: How to Start

Are your staff afraid to share what is going wrong in your company? Do problems keep happening, and you don’t know why?

A great solution is to step into the roles of your staff and see the situation first-hand.

One fantastic technique is what I call “Employee For a Day.” It is a simple, hands-on activity where an executive leader leaves their role, and she or he sits in the seat of employees to see the organization from their point of view.

In my previous post, I describe what happened when I entered the day-to-day world of my staff. It humbled me, challenged me, and ultimately led to several changes in the organization.

There were a few drawbacks as well. Here are all the dirty details of how to get started.

The Painful Reality

First, let’s get real. Sometimes hearing the truth is hard. It can be embarrassing, shocking, and even painful.

Bad News is not something most of us want to hear. But consider the alternative… What happens if nothing changes? (You can try the Scrooge Effect described here).

Entering the world of employees is very likely to reveal aspects of your company that are uncomfortable. You may discover work-arounds, dangerous practices, and even unethical behavior.

Here are the 3 things I learned after going through my Employee For a Day experience:

  1. Disconnected. Once I had spent 3 days with staff, the most significant negativity actually came from my fellow leaders. Other managers grew distant from me. None of the executives shared my enthusiasm for entering the world of our staff. Although they showed initial interest, once the finger started pointing back to the top of the organization, they suddenly didn’t seem as willing to hear the feedback.
  2. Jealousy. Once I’d joined our staff “in the trenches,” it was like a floodgate opened. Staff began coming to me with new ideas, concerns, and requests. This created friction between me and the rest of my management team.
  3. Resistance to Change. Although I did receive tacit approval from top leaders to embark on this project, once I shared the results of my experiment, the response was a bit… cooler than I’d expected. Looking back, it’s clear that a life-changing experience can greatly impact those who experienced it first-hand, but their enthusiasm can quickly seem out of place to those who have not.

Despite all these potential challenges, the benefits of this project are invaluable. I listed 10 positive outcomes in my previous post.

With this in mind, here are some tips on how you can design your Employee For a Day.

 

Overview: The Basics

“Employee For a Day” is a simple, hands-on experience in which a leader actually sees organizational challenges from her or his employees’ point of view.

As a manager, director, or executive, your daily tasks are probably far removed from the “daily grind” of your employees. The opportunity to sit with staff for a full day (or several) will give you a first-hand view of how your organization looks and feels from the bottom looking up.

It puts you in contact with customers in a way that you may not have a chance to see from your leadership position.

This tactic also connects you with employees. You’ll be able to have conversations that many of them wouldn’t normally feel comfortable having. If they only see you at an executive level, the Corporate Ladder gap can seem pretty daunting.

Done properly, Employee For a Day is immensely valuable because it allows you to truly empathize with the struggles and frustrations that your employees face. You’ll be able to advocate for their needs, fix problems more easily, and recognize problems before they get worse.

A good example of this happens in the popular CBS show “Undercover Boss,” which features leaders who disguise themselves in order to try different roles in their own organization.

undercover boss, boss, bosses, CBS, management
“Undercover Boss” CBS TV show

The idea of observing employees in an unobtrusive, pressure-free environment is a great concept.

But obviously, this show is created for entertainment value. Most of it is likely scripted. And as heart-warming as these stories can be, I wonder: what is the long-term success rate after the show airs? Read on, and I will explain.

What Kind of Leader Should Do This?

I believe that effective leaders do NOT need to be outspoken, aggressive, and commandeering Type-A people.

In fact, one of the greatest traits a leader can have is humility.

  • They can meet employees at their level.
  • They even put themselves in vulnerable situations to learn where the problems are.
  • Humble leaders don’t have all the answers.
  • They don’t need to micro-manage the environment.
  • And when faced with unfamiliar tasks, they jump in to face the unknown.

For many top leaders, a lot of time has passed since they left the bottom and entered the Corporate level. They may be surprised to find that day-to-day tasks are a challenge. It can be humbling to enter the world of your staff.

And that is why every leader can benefit from becoming an Employee for a Day.

 

Initial Preparation

Before starting your Employee For a Day event, keep in mind that there are some significant “costs.” Not just in terms of time and effort, but also with a mindset shift from Leader to Staff.

Here are 5 areas that have a “cost,” and which I suggest you set up first:

1. Commitment

The Employee For a Day experience requires you to be “all in.” Don’t start it half-heartedly, expecting to jump back into your normal job when an emergency arises.

Treat this like you would a 2- or 3-day off-site retreat. Reschedule all other commitments so nothing can distract you. I blocked off the majority of 3 full workdays and did some catch-up at the end of the day. This allowed me to fully immerse myself in the experiences of my staff, and allowed me to see the entire scope of the organization over the course of 6 full hours for three days in a row.

2. Self-Evaluation

As much as you think this will be a piece of cake, you might be surprised to hear the “dirty little secrets” employees haven’t been telling you. Or worst of all, the secrets they’re AFRAID to tell you.

I uncovered several unpleasant situations that our staff had been keeping hidden from “The Management.” When I started unraveling a variety of work-arounds, the truth finally came out, and it wasn’t pretty. The reality is, some of your staff may feel unheard or even intimidated by your personality or management methods.

Get ready for a bumpy ride.

3. Goal-Setting

Before you start, decide what you’re trying to accomplish. What do you want to learn?

Your goals might include:

  • See challenges your staff are facing first-hand
  • Find out why recurring problems are happening
  • Hear feedback directly from staff
  • Understand what their daily duties are like
  • Listen to how customers treat your staff
  • Observe how staff and management interact
  • Allow staff to know you better

Not-so-great goals would be:

  • self-focused (“everyone will tell me how great of a boss I am”),
  • punitive (“let’s find out who’s at fault”), or
  • reactionary (“we’re going to eliminate all the problems right away”).

It also helps to write down your goals. I like to use the SMART and CLEAR goal-setting standards:

SMART goals, CLEAR goals, goal-setting
Grace LaConte’s take on SMART and CLEAR goals

 

4. Clear Off Your Schedule

Imagine how terrifying it would feel for your boss to announce that she or he will be sitting beside you for several hours.

It’s even worse if this is a total surprise (and I, for one, hate surprises).

To minimize your staff’s potential stage fright, consider easing yourself into this experience a little at a time. If you normally don’t spend any time in the break room, join your staff during the lunch hour with no expectations or self-promotional interest. Sit in their office area and allow them to get used to you being around.

Once they are more comfortable, give your staff advance warning of your “Employee For a Day” activities. Consider asking managers to create a schedule of events for you, to allow you to rotate through all of the job roles in their department. Let others take the reins (which is the philosophy behind “Participatory Job Design” too.) 

5. Don’t Wimp Out

This experience is challenging, no doubt about it. You’ll be tempted to skip out on the afternoon because of “pressing issues.”

You will want to spend time in your comfort zone, sitting in a location where you feel most in control. You’ll probably shy away from doing tasks that aren’t familiar.

But the biggest benefits will come when you enter the unknowns—the roles you normally shy away from.

 

Which Role Should I Pick First?

I recommend spending the MOST time with your Foundational Staff. You probably have the least amount of regular contact with these folks:

  • Housekeeping
  • Maintenance
  • Kitchen crew
  • Sanitation workers
  • Direct Customer or Patient Care
  • Janitors
  • Anyone who works in the basement (trust me, these folks have a great insights if you just ask them)

I have worked in the basements of a hospital, surgical center, and physician office. Every time, I felt like Milton in Office Space: alone, forgotten, and totally overlooked.

Office Space, Milton, red stapler, motivation, engagement, basement, management, leadership, employee
Milton from 1999 movie “Office Space

Your “lowest-level-of-the-organization” staff have the most challenging jobs, and they are often the least heard. But I bet you’d be shocked at their insights.

I was blown away by the gems of wisdom from my housekeeping staff, who often overhear everything that’s said at the facility. Or the brilliant suggestions from direct care and customer service staff who routinely hear patients say “If only you could provide…” or “I would love it if you could change…”

These pearls of wisdom often don’t make it up the ladder, so there’s very little hope for any real changes. (If you see this happening at your organization, consider evaluating whether your Feedback Loops are Healthy).

In my experience, the vast majority of organizational problems start at the Executive level, not at the Staff level. I call this “Corporate Ladder Bias”:
A pattern of favoring unreasonable beliefs and behavior that primarily benefits top-level leaders, and avoiding rational information that may contradict or threaten those beliefs.

Getting the most out of this experience will depend on your ability to prepare ahead mentally before you start, and review the results after it ends. I highly recommend doing some soul-searching, and maybe starting small first.

 

What Happens After? A Word About Post-Mortems

Once your Employee For a Day experience has ended, don’t just check it off your list and move on.

You have to do something with what you just observed. I rarely see executive leaders use a Post-Mortem Evaluation, which is simply a review of “what happened, and why.” But skipping this last step is like completing a brutal weightlifting workout, then skipping the post-workout mobility stretches.

Your company will benefit so much more if you take the time to do a final evaluation.

Here is what I suggest:

  • Get the thoughts out. You could:
    • talk to a friend or mentor
    • jam-write (write down your thoughts non-stop for 20 minutes)
    • mind map (diagram your ideas in a visual format, as MindTools explains here)
    • record yourself talking in a Voice Memo or a video
  • Complete the Feedback LoopMake sure all 5 components of a Healthy Loop are present in your company:
    • Empathetic Leaders. Does the leadership team experience the pain of those they lead (especially Foundational Staff)?
    • Non-Retaliatory Culture. Is intimidation ever used if the feedback isn’t pleasant?
    • Structured Feedback Mechanism. How is feedback collected? Are these methods monitored and tested regularly?
    • Analytic Framework. How are you analyzing and evaluating the data?
    • Visible Follow-Through. What changes will be implemented? How will those decisions be communicated? What kind of monitoring will you put in place?
feedback loop, healthy feedback, empathetic leaders, structured mechanisms
Components of a Healthy Feedback Loop
  • Conduct a Post-Mortem. Also known as Lessons Learned, this retrospective review will help you determine root causes by examining:
    • what happened
    • what went well
    • what didn’t go well, and
    • how we can adjust for the future
  • Make some decisions. Use these insights to decide which actions to Avoid (eliminate), Reduce (mitigate), Retain (accept), and/or Transfer (insure). Based on this, you might decide to:
    • restructure a department
    • cross-train staff
    • buy new equipment
    • get rid of old equipment
    • hire new staff
    • let staff go gently (using the 80/20 principle)
    • niche your company even further
    • reduce wasteful activities
    • eliminate low-ROI services or products

How Do I Analyze the Results?

Without a careful analysis of the root causes and a monitoring process, the same problems will continue to happen, and nothing will actually change.

I find it very helpful to measure risk using a Risk Matrix like the one below. This allows us to evaluate the likelihood and impact of uncertainties that are quantitative (measurable) and qualitative (experiential).

Using a range of Severity and Likelihood, we can determine how to manage a particular risk:

  • Low severity and high likelihood: Share (acquire insurance)
  • Low severity and low likelihood: Accept (allow the vulnerability to continue)
  • High severity and low likelihood: Control (transfer risk to another entity), and/or
  • High severity and high likelihood: Mitigate (reduce the number of factors)
risk matrix, risk severity, risk likelihood, high risk, medium risk, low risk, risk management
Grace LaConte’s Risk Matrix of Severity and Likelihood

Final Thoughts

By entering the world of your employees, you’ll get an in-depth look at their headaches and perform their job as you have asked them to do it.

Rather than looking for people to blame, this experience makes it “your job” to observe, learn, and experience the world from the point of view of your employees.

 

Does your organization use a variation of Employee For a Day? What happened? How did things change?

If you want help finding out whether your practice is at risk, schedule a free call so we can talk.


Grace LaConte is a Strategic Risk Expert who helps Complementary and Integrative Health practitioners to find and fix organizational vulnerabilities. Using her experience as a Risk Officer and Director in healthcare and technology companies, Grace shares a refreshingly honest approach to uncovering hidden risks and opportunities. Learn more at http://laconteconsulting.com, or connect with her on Twitter @lacontestrategy.

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