Are You my Supervisor?

“Are you my supervisor?” It seems like a pretty straightforward question.  In most organizations there is someone is who responsible for directing another person’s work.  Where this gets tricky is when the organization is being sued for harassment or some other nasty thing.

Check out this case before the Supreme Court.  Vance (the plaintiff) is accusing her employer (Ball State University) of discrimination because her supervisor was harassing her.  Ah, but was this person doing the harassing her supervisor, which would mean Ball State was responsible?  Or, was this person her co-worker, where the remedies required by the employer would be significantly lower?  If that person wasn’t the supervisor, who was?  The 7th Circuit Court said that the definition of a supervisor is a person with the authority of hire, fire, promote, transfer, or discipline a worker.  Do your first line supervisors have all of that authority?  I thought not.  The EEOC defines a supervisor as someone with the capacity to control a co-worker’s daily activities.  The word “capacity” seems vague.  Why not “authority”?  The school presented evidence that others were responsible for planning Vance’s daily activities, but Vance argues that others had control of her other activities at work.

Practically speaking, for most jobs it seems that management would want to be pretty clear about who a person’s supervisor is so that it could communicate and plan effectively.  Depending on the job, the employees find this useful as well.  And an employee having multiple supervisors doesn’t make anybody happy.

Only the most litigation-averse person would suggest not having any employees classified as supervisors (and I don’t think that that would fly with the Department of Labor’s wage and salary auditors).  For those you do assign to be supervisors, be sure to specify who their direct reports are, which activities they will direct and what their management responsibilities are in their job descriptions.  See here for a list of these kinds of activities.

Back to the court case, Vance is arguing that multiple people could influence her daily activities.  Ball State doesn’t disagree, but says that those influencers are not her supervisors.  We’ll let the court decide that (though in reading the transcript, things are not looking good for Vance).  But, the question for HR people is how to make these lines of authority as clear as possible (for communication and accountability reasons) and still have an organization that isn’t stifled by chains of command.

For more information on leadership and job performance, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or

What Does the Presidential Election Tell Us About Executive Decision Making?

While this post is about the election, it is NOT about politics.  Rather, it’s about decision making and how letting pre-determined analyses about the facts affect the process.

In this case, the facts were the polling data regarding the presidential election (you can see which ones were the most accurate here).  For the last 40 years, the polls have been pretty accurate and their errors are evenly distributed among the two political parties (see this link).

So, I’m at networking business lunch the day before the election discussing what might happen on Election Day.  Most the people at my table were pretty strong Republicans.  When I talked about the tracking data and their historic accuracy, they dismissed those facts with anecdotes.  For instance, saying that Obama wasn’t drawing big crowds but Romney is, etc. as being indicative of turnout, when pollsters explicitly base their data on those who say they are likely voters.  They clearly had an idea in their heads and nothing would have convinced them to let it go.  I’m sure if the situation was the exactly opposite (sitting with a group of Democratic partisans talking about the Republican candidate’s lead) it would have been the same conversation.

This reliance of going from the “gut” instead of with facts is something I see from some (certainly not all) supervisors, managers, and leaders all of the time.  The question is how do we consult with managers to help them make better (read: unbiased) decisions in the HR arena?

One approach is to find out the person’s biases upfront.  If the person already knows the “right” answer to the questions s/he is asking you, ask them what kind of data would change his/her mind.  If the answer is “nothing,” then you at least know how much time you want to spend on the project.  You have to pick your battles.

When it comes to selection, managers have a built in bias towards systems that have (or haven’t) allowed them to progress.  If they’ve passed tests to help them move up, then all test results are accurate.  If someone else got the promotion after going through an assessment center, they are a waste of time and money.  The challenge here is to get them to see the pattern of effectiveness, not just a single result.  There are plenty of good analytic tools for doing this.

It’s important to remember that when a person has this type of bias there is a reason for it.  The bias itself comes from some other experience.  Learning more about how the person developed the strongly held opinion gives both of you a better understanding of it.  This will also allow you to present data that may be more acceptable to him/her.

Finally, remember that the person’s bias may lead him/her to the best decision (just because someone’s has their mind made up does not make him/her wrong).  However, the process is important.  And presenting solid HR data can only help you in the long run.

For more information on leadership, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or

How Strategy Fits with Buying or Developing Talent

There was big news recently about Disney’s decision to buy LucasFilm, George Lucas’s company which is best known for owning the Star Wars franchise (movies, books, consumer products tie-ins, etc.) and the special effects house Industrial Light and Magic.  Disney made it clear that what it really wanted was Star Wars for future films and to sell Star Wars branded stuff.  This is the third of their acquisitions of large creative entities (Pixar and Marvel preceded it).

I’m not here to question or go into details about the acquisitions (I’ll leave that to M&A experts).  Rather, I think it’s an interesting example of Disney’s human resources strategy, at least at the creative level, and is another data point in a pattern of companies shrinking their core competencies.

I have a good network of H.R. executives in the apparel business.  Starting about 20 years ago the trend of offshore manufacturing was just starting.  At first, it was interesting to observe how many of the H.R. people would justify their production staying in the U.S. because they were a “manufacturing” company.  This often came from the deep historical roots of the company with a founder who started the company from scratch by inventing a machine or process (for those of you in high tech, think HP).  However, the call of cheaper labor and friendlier tariff laws drew nearly all of them offshore.  What they morphed into were design and marketing companies.  As one of them said at a seminar talking to future graduates of fashion and apparel companies, “What we’re really hiring now are lawyers and business graduates.”  They went from being design, manufacturing and marketing companies to design and marketing ones.

Disney’s history is rooted in the story of Walt Disney and his imagination.  Great attention was paid to those who adapted fairy tale characters for 20th century tastes and the accompanying theme park rides (Imagineers).  In 1970, you would have said that Disney was a creative arts company that figured out how to leverage it, to a certain extent, into commercial products.  In the last 10 years, and I must admit I am reading between the lines here, Disney executives did the analysis which showed them that their capital was better spent on developing commercial products and producing entertainment than developing creative content from scratch.  This isn’t to say that they won’t invest in improving the performance of their new employees.  However, it does say that they felt that dollars invested in nurturing creative people was better spent someplace else.

Like with the apparel business, Disney has made a fundamental strategic shift as to the best direction for their business.  From a talent acquisition perspective, they’ve also told young job seekers in creative fields that they are better off plying their trade at a smaller shop and hope to get bought rather than knocking on Mickey’s door.  This illustrates why H.R. needs to be in tune with our company’s strategy.  You can’t be making talent management plans unless you know how they are going to support your company’s strategy, which may be changing under your feet.

For more information on pre-employment testing, skills assessment, and talent management, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or

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