Business Columns & Blogs

New managers must learn to play by the rules but not be pushovers

I just re-connected with a friend’s daughter. I watched her grow from toddler to first-line supervisor in a large industrial company.

She is seeing work from another side today. It is an awesome responsibility to make and ship things within specs and on time. It is much more fun if everyone wants to do their part.

Sadly, this young manager is learning there are usually exceptions in any workplace. Managing everyone to get the work done is an underrated skill.

She asked me about dealing with excessive or unnecessary absenteeism. It seems to her the employer’s hands are tied. “Did you know an employee can come up to me today and get personal time off that very same afternoon, when we both know it could have been planned ahead (or is not even necessary)?” Yes, they call it the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

It is hard to get important work done with excessive unscheduled absenteeism. Various laws protect employees who need time off, but these laws also provide a sword to people who want to abuse those rights.

Now, this column is not about the merits of the FMLA. It is about two important concepts for a new manager to learn: managing abusers firmly and fairly, while also helping others with the right degree of empathy.

Managing and motivating people under today’s regulatory umbrella is not for sissies. It is hard to manage what you cannot control and regulators take away lots of control. The poor behavior of one employee affects the hard worker in the next seat. What can be done?

Avoidance is not a atrategy

Avoiding timely and clear communication with an absence abuser is enabling. Like punishing a spouse with the “silent treatment,” absence abusers love avoiders. Instead, ask them why this was unscheduled, describe the problems caused and ask how to prevent recurrences. Talk about alternative job assignments where excessive absences are not as harmful to the work. Talk about medical or other evidence to substantiate the unscheduled or intermittent absences. Let them know this matters.

Human Resources can help you get this done within the bounds of the rules. Do not let the fact you will lose some of these battles keep you from moving forward. The alternative is an unattractive downward spiral in your ability to manage results.

Empathy makes us human

Empathy for people who truly need your help is what makes you human. Sometimes, the same manager who avoids attendance abusers will also mechanically apply rigid rules to good employees.

Good employees deserve better! Genuine human need for time off should be met with genuine human concern and flexibility. Otherwise, go find a profession where all the decisions are easy.

So, welcome to management my youthful and enthusiastic young friend. May you always have the wisdom to know when to push back and when to lend a hand.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit