Dear People Ops:
I am a manager of a small (eight person) department. I've been with the company for three years, and been a manager for the past year. I have four employees who have been here for decades (10 to 30 years).
Apparently there was a former employee here (in their social circle, another 30-year vet, never knew her, she quit before I was here) who had a husband who was shot while trying to stop a gas station robbery. Word is he was in some sort of coma or diminished health for years and finally passed away. The four came to me and asked if they could have the afternoon off today because of the funeral. This is the worst possible time because with everybody out for the holidays we are way behind our department goals. I said two of them could take PTO for the afternoon but I really couldn't have half the department out for half the day when we're so far behind.
They weren't happy to hear this so I tried to compromise. We have unpaid lunches up to an hour. I told them if they wanted to take two hours for lunch and then come back and work late I would cover for them. They were uninterested in this. They went over my head to the owner/CEO and said they should be all dismissed from work to attend since it was a "company funeral." Thankfully he backed my play and offered them a long lunch to attend.
Was in the the wrong here? Now everybody is scowling around and I'm the bad guy. Should I really have let half the department leave for the day when we're days behind on our workload?
This is a tricky, and potentially unwinnable, situation.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is a cost-benefit analysis. I know, I know, It feels wrong to reduce people issues to a stark, cold equation. But that's the way business decisions are made, and it's the way "HR" decisions should be made, too, if these decisions are to be credible and effective. In this situation, we’re comparing the cost of a missed half day of work to the benefit of increased employee morale.
Your solution was a good one, as demonstrated by your boss backing you up. Nonetheless, a cost-benefit analysis would have potentially led to even more creative solutions. My partner’s mother introduced me to the concept of the "purple solution" -- rather than picking a "grey" compromise between the black and white extremes, try to find something totally different that changes the whole framework and hopefully makes everyone happy. An example, give the employees ownership over the lost productivity of an afternoon out of the office by challenging them to brainstorm a plan to make up for it. They get to attend, and the department doesn't suffer.
I also wanted to address a different question: what do you do now? Team moral has been damaged. I’d recommend having a one-on-one conversation with each employee affected. While you may not be able to repair the relationship fully, ignoring the impact of this situation won’t make it go away.
Finally, there are deeper questions your problem reveals that as a manager I encourage you to explore. Why do you have four employees with almost a combined century worth of tenure at one company who are not in management? Why is the department behind in their goals? Why did they not have the professionalism to request the time off before the day of the funeral? Answering these questions may help you diagnose and solve bigger cultural issues on your team.
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