Viewpoint: How Toxin Handlers Reduce Organizational Pain

By Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D. March 25, 2019
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Viewpoint: How Toxin Handlers Reduce Organizational Pain

This is the third in a three-part series of articles on toxic workplaces and HR's role in mitigating organizational toxicity. The first article in the series introduced research conducted by the author on HR professionals' role in handling toxic emotions at work. The second article discussed how HR professionals protect themselves from toxic emotions.

In our study of HR professionals' role in handling employees' toxic emotions at work, participants reported engaging in six core activities: listening empathetically, suggesting solutions and providing resources, working behind the scenes and providing a "safe space," providing confidential counseling, strategizing communications and reframing difficult messages, and advising and coaching managers.

Listening Empathetically

Toxin handlers take the time to actively listen to an employee's pain and provide an important moment of human connection. Making sure that a person feels heard and understood can help validate feelings and give a greater sense of being valued and respected by the organization. A study participant said:

So, my experience is to ... first be a listener. When somebody comes in agitated or emotionally upset, they can't even hear anything you say until they finish speaking and getting everything out. So I always felt it was my role to just be a listener and provide for them a safe environment where they could speak freely and confidence was maintained.

Suggesting Solutions and Providing Resources

HR toxin handlers look for ways to resolve, reduce or manage the emotions the employee is experiencing. This may take the form of brainstorming possible solutions, role-playing difficult conversations or simply talking about the problem in greater depth. They often have to provide solutions to both management and employees about the same situation, and their counsel can cause them to experience internal conflict. In most employee situations, though, the study's participants suggested that employees mostly just needed to vent to someone who would listen.

Not all emotions that HR deals with are caused by work-related decisions. Employees also show up to discuss a variety of personal struggles as well—relationship issues, health problems and more. HR practitioners in the study noted that management does not consider this active listening as part of the primary role of HR, but it nevertheless requires a significant portion of HR's time:

People bring conflicts to work from outside of work. HR must explore ways to give them the resources needed to help them with their personal struggles.

Working Behind the Scenes and Providing a 'Safe Space'

The work of the toxin handler most always happens behind closed doors—as a result, it is invisible to senior leaders and most of the organization. While the work is very important, it can feel thankless. Many of the HR professionals indicated that they still take on this role because they genuinely care about the well-being of their employees and the organization.
I've found that you have to listen, you have to make it safe [to speak freely], you have to repeat [what was said], and then you have to clarify what they're saying ... you have to try and give them a different perspective on the situation or give them encouragement ... whatever the case may be.

HR also protects employees in tough situations by helping facilitate internal transfers or, in particularly intolerable situations, even helping them find a new job outside of the company.

Providing Confidential Counseling

Establishing and maintaining a sense of trust is paramount for toxin handlers when working with employees who are in a difficult situation or experiencing intense emotions. Employees must be absolutely certain that HR will keep their confidence, which can put HR professionals in a difficult situation. HR supports management and also employees. Even if the employee discusses information that may not be the most favorable to management (e.g., an employee discloses that he or she is leaving the company and wants to discuss benefits, etc.), confidentiality must still be maintained:.

HR must honor confidentiality but help the employee to problem-solve.

Strategizing Communications and Reframing Difficult Messages

Participants said developing a communication plan and regularly communicating news to employees—both good and bad—was a critical responsibility of the HR role. Their overriding goal was to minimize employee stress by keeping the workforce as informed as possible about difficult organizational decisions. They said reducing the unknowns was a key way HR practitioners can help make bad situations a bit more bearable. They also felt that their job was to help "set the tone" and provide managers and supervisors with an overarching strategy about how to handle difficult messages and situations, including sometimes providing them a written script and proposed questions and answers for some highly difficult situations:

We need to understand where trigger points for employees may lie and get ahead of the situation through communication. In this way, we can help to diffuse "hot spots" before they become terribly problematic for people. We are the liaison of those [tough] decisions. We're the "boots on the ground."

Coaching and Advising Managers

The study's participants frequently noted that a large part of their organizational role was to serve both as advisors to managers and implementers of management's decisions; however, they were careful to point out that they were not usually the final decision-makers (although, they pointed out, employees often wrongly think they are and penalize them unfairly):

Much of my day is spent in consultation with supervisors who are dealing with difficult employees. I'm advising them about the regulations and what steps we can take, but I'm also like a counselor because they're so frustrated. They're so fed up with this person, and they just really need somebody to vent to or somebody to talk to. I try to let them know it's not the end of the world.

Participants noted that they often feel caught between their dual roles of advocating for employees while also supporting their senior leaders and protecting the interests of the organization. They were often involved in situations when there was a need to advocate for and protect employees while also challenging management. This duality created a great deal of stress and tension for them. Navigating this dual role was referred to numerous times as "a precarious balancing act."

Participants also noted the irony of frequently having to deliver bad news to employees but not often getting to participate in their happier workplace moments, which are most commonly handled by the employee's direct supervisor or manager. They were frustrated by the fact that they were often key contributors to these positive moments, but their work to make good things happen was often invisible to employees. If HR professionals were to directly deliver positive news to employees more often, it would likely change their perception about the disproportionate role they tend to take on as toxin handlers.

Why Organizations Need Toxin Handlers

Organizations are constantly changing, through mergers, acquisitions, re-engineering, leadership changes, downsizing and the like. The unintended consequence of these initiatives, though, is the creation of intense anxiety and even paralyzing fear among employees. Some types of pain are one-time events created by the sudden loss of a senior leader, a dramatic shift in profitability or a breach of ethics. Other pain is chronic, created by policies that systematically generate distress (e.g., unreasonable stretch goals, performance or reward systems that cause destructive internal competition, cultures of fear, etc.) or toxic leaders who generate a high level of emotion and stress among their employees.

When HR helps employees manage these high-stress situations, workers can stay focused and do their jobs. Without HR as toxin handlers, the organizational toxicity would continue to build, resulting in higher levels of turnover, increased health costs, more litigation, and reduced levels of employee morale, productivity and profitability.

In addition, HR professionals frequently counsel managers about how to deal with difficult employee situations. As a result, their work directly helps to de-escalate emotional situations and make employees feel valued in the process. It also helps to reduce the potential for lawsuits and claims of discrimination and harassment.

Organizational Strategies to Protect Toxin Handlers

The following strategies were recommended by participants in the study as ways that organizations could proactively begin to reduce the harm to toxin handlers caused by the situations listed above.

1. Formalize toxin-handling responsibilities. Earlier research has shown that organizations that make handling emotionally charged employee problems a formal part of HR's responsibilities tend to have lower levels of emotional exhaustion. The HR function is perceived as more effective, even when the handlers are engaged in high levels of toxin handling.

Participants in the study were overwhelmingly in favor of this strategy. To formalize these duties, organizations should consider including the seven toxin-handling responsibilities in the HR employee's job description, set the goals to be achieved, and monitor and reward performance during performance reviews. Formalizing this expectation can help reduce the stress that is often created when employees have a somewhat ambiguous organizational role.

2. Focus on building a 'culture of care.' The involvement of senior leadership in building a "culture of care" can help mitigate the inevitable toxic emotions occurring at work and the need for toxin handlers. If senior leaders demonstrate that they truly care about employees and are honest and ethical in their interactions, some of the organizational toxicity that is bound to exist from time to time will be lessened:

Let normal attrition take place to avoid severe future impact from reductions in force. Continually improve processes to minimize the need for downsizings and terminations. Engage in long-term thinking. Do things right and be ethical. Preplan for predictable business cycles to minimize the impact on the workforce. View employees as a talent issue and not a problem to be solved. This changes the dynamic of the types of decisions that are made. Be proactive.

3. Work together with purpose. The study's participants expressed that there should be more of an intentional partnership between HR and senior leaders to reduce organizational toxicity and make HR feel more valued and supported:

Senior leadership should be there for HR, HR should be there for them, and they should both be on the same page.
I think there has to be intentional partnership between HR and the management team to make all of this work. If that never happens, I think HR is going to take on the whole burden, and that is not fair to the department.

4. Expand employee communications. Regularly and honestly communicating with employees builds trust. Employees who trust are more willing to believe that management is making the best decisions possible under the circumstances, even when those decisions have a negative impact on employees. Participants recommended that organizations share as much information as possible with as much advance notice as possible so employees understand how and when certain decisions will be made—and most importantly, why those decisions are made. Participants in the study noted that employees will often assume the worst if they do not hear anything from management or HR:

Employees have to know that they can trust you because you have ethics and integrity and that what you are telling them is real. If employees believe that, then the organization will get through [tough times] with the least amount of stress and aftereffect.

5. Rotate HR practitioners. Study participants suggested that certain functional areas of HR, especially employee and labor relations, tend to create more opportunities for toxin handling. Individuals in these roles should be given the opportunity to rotate through a variety of positions to reduce the possibility of emotional exhaustion, stress and burnout. Alternatively, HR practitioners within a specific discipline such as employee relations might be given the opportunity to support different customers on a rotating basis to alleviate some of the conflict and tension with specific individuals.

6. Ramp up training in soft skills. Training in stress management, communication skills and conflict management may also be beneficial in reducing organizational anxieties and stresses. Expanding soft-skills training could also help give other managers and supervisors the competencies needed to share some of this work so HR doesn't have to take care of all toxin-handling situations.

7. Recognize and appreciate the work. It is critical for organizations to recognize the importance of toxin handling performed by HR practitioners. These practitioners and the compassion they bring to their organizations are an important reason companies manage to function in the midst of difficult times.

The study's participants said overwhelmingly that support from their senior leaders—in the form of time and resources, plus recognition and appreciation of the importance of the work—would reduce some of the stress associated with this often invisible (but highly time-consuming) task:

Acknowledge that [toxin handling] is real and it's needed. Respect the people who are able to do it, who are capable of doing it and perform it well.
Show appreciation to HR for acting as a buffer or "organizational shock absorber," which allows employees to have a place to vent and then go back to their regular jobs.

When the role is formalized and the work is recognized and valued, organizations will be more conscious about providing HR with the time, resources and support required for them to perform these additional duties. In turn, this will help to minimize the negative impact on those who do the work.

HR practitioners know that helping employees deal with the pain caused by toxic emotions is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good for business. For this work to be sustainable, though, organizations will need to make these responsibilities explicit in the relevant HR job descriptions and take affirmative steps to recognize, support and reward these often invisible HR heroes.

Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D., serves as dean and professor of human resource leadership programs at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky. She is the author of Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal & Risk Management Professionals (SHRM, 2016) and numerous articles and book chapters about contemporary issues at the intersection of HR, leadership, employment law and ethics. Her research assistant is Chris Gray, a Ph.D. student in management with a concentration in HR leadership at Sullivan University. Gray is also HR consultant with the Department of Veterans Affairs. From 2005 to 2009, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman with two tours in Iraq. His research interests include the employment of veterans, veteran entrepreneurship and workforce studies.

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