While preparing themselves to compete in the ever-changing electrical design and construction industry, many contractors admit to putting profit above all else. Although cash flow should certainly be at the top of their priority list, what many don't know, or choose to forget, is that developing skills in their employees should come in a close second. There are many avenues to accomplish this objective, including enrolling staff in apprenticeship school, online instruction, on-the-job training, and continuing education programs. The problem is, training efforts at many electrical contracting firms tend to be somewhat one dimensional, focusing mainly on furthering an employee's technical skills.

Although technical training is obviously essential for a successful operation, it doesn't necessarily teach employees how to be good leaders. In fact, some characteristics and habits commonly displayed by technical types may even detract from their ability to effectively supervise or motivate others. Because leadership abilities are so important when choosing front-line supervisors, an investment in teaching employees proper leadership skills will add another dimension to your training program.

How do you go about shaping a successful leadership culture at your company? A good place to start is making sure your supervisors possess the skills to confront employee behavior that fails to meets expectations and understand the importance of discipline and conformity in building high-performance teams at the job site. But before examining individual skill sets, it's important to realize that all employees are not created equal.

A look in the mirror

Companies that provide statistics on the American workforce, such as 360 Solutions, a consulting organization that is considered one of the leading authorities on employee development, all seem to yield the same conclusions when it comes to classifying workers. They divide the typical company workforce into three attitude groups. The top 20% to 25% are high-performance employees that consistently work well above expectations. The second group is made up of stable employees who generally do what they are told when they are told to do it. This group could be doing significantly more but usually do the minimum required. The third group will do the least amount of work and may actually work against the goals of the company — whether it means becoming more profitable as a department or completing a wire pull before the end of the day.

While all employees should have the same performance expectations, the latter two groups must be held accountable for meeting performance expectations in order to be productive. Based on these findings, there are three categories of performance expectations your company should address.

  1. Develop a solid set of policies and procedures — rules that must apply to every employee. These are usually written policies in the form of an employee manual. Following are some examples of performance expectations you might want to include in your manual:

    • Arrive at work on time and remain in work areas except during breaks and lunch.

    • Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times.

    • Pick up tools 5 minutes before your assigned quitting time.

    • Check out tools only when you need them.

    • Follow all safety rules.

    Every company will have its own policies and procedures; the key is making sure they are put in place and clearly communicated to (and understood by) every employee.

  2. Pay strict attention to interpersonal conduct and behavior. Include these areas in the employee manual along with policies and procedures. Interpersonal conduct and behavior is important because it reflects your company's image and reputation. Examples of interpersonal conduct and behavior rules might be:

    • No horse play.
    • Treat others with respect.
    • Comply with dress code.
    • Keep your work area clean.

    Although these rules might seem like common sense, it's still important to have expectations stated in writing. Reflecting a strong, positive image is especially critical in today's competitive market. Because your company's reputation may be the deciding factor in a customer's decision to award a contract to you or your competitor, don't minimize the impact of this objective.

  3. Set minimum performance specifications, which will inform employees if they are addressing both quality and quantity in completing tasks. Performance specifications are difficult to set in the electrical contracting industry because employees will not be consistently productive from day to day.

Various factors can affect productivity such as weather, information flow, other trades on the job site, type of project, and other resources. However, you can still set minimum performance specifications, which might include ensuring installation of work according to the National Electrical Code, finishing all jobs in a workmanlike manner, following all safety policies and procedures, and performing work according to prints and specifications. Ideal in theory, sometimes meeting these tasks is easier said than done.

Rallying support

Because some challenges will always exist when it comes to implementing performance expectations, it's important to gain support from key stakeholders of the company right off the bat. It will do you absolutely no good to develop performance expectations if upper management or the human resources department will not stand behind you.

To increase a sense of ownership and the likelihood that performance expectations will be met, involve employees when you are developing the expectations. Next, link your company's performance expectations with the formal disciplinary procedures of the larger organization. In addition, avoid setting overly specific specifications, as they can be counter-productive. For example, setting the expectation that an employee “must install 500 feet of ¾-inch EMT conduit per day” may lead to the employee thinking he can quit working at noon if he installs 500 feet of conduit. To assist your supervisors and other employees in knowing what is expected of them, let them review the bid specifications for the job ahead of time.

Once you have rallied the troops behind your new performance objectives and everything is off to a great start, don't be fooled. It's naive to expect a problem-free workplace. Therefore, it's best to anticipate potential problems now instead of later. Although it's counterproductive to worry before the milk spills, establishing a procedure to deal with employee complaints and/or grievances will make resolution that much easier.

Dealing with difficult employees

Whether your discipline procedures are linked to a collective bargaining agreement or you use a procedure such as a verbal warning, a written warning, and then termination, use them consistently — never allow supervisors to avoid confronting employees that don't meet expectations.

Using discipline procedures consistently is one of the most difficult tasks you will face as an electrical contractor. There are a number of reasons front-line supervisors, such as foremen and general foremen, are sometimes uncomfortable disciplining employees. They may have relationships with their employees outside of work, or maybe this person is a former supervisor. They may even fear retaliation on future projects. Because of these and other factors, many project managers would rather pass “chaotic” employees to other projects than to deal with the problem themselves. This type of supervisor typically justifies the action because they're simply too busy to deal with the problem.

This avoidance tactic may stem from the fact that many managers and foremen may be uncomfortable because they have never learned how to confront employees in a productive manner. Called “harnessing harmful behavior,” this way of confronting problem employees and enforcing performance expectations is a skill that can be learned and refined (see “Putting Out Fires” below).

There are two conditions under which the harnessing skill should be used. First, you must be in a position of authority, such as a supervisor or manager, to exercise this responsibility toward the employee. Second, the individual's behavior should be out of line or harmful to themselves or others. If either of these two conditions exists, it's appropriate and beneficial to harness harmful behavior. Learning how to master this task is not difficult. In the end, it will actually make the supervisor's job much easier.

The guidelines for harnessing harmful behavior are clear and easy to follow. First, establish clear expectations regarding performance and personal conduct. Employees must know what is expected of them in order to meet or exceed expectations. Second, you must be aware of your organization's disciplinary procedures. Supervisors and managers must be consistent with this disciplinary action or it will not be effective. Inconsistency will also de-motivate your employees. Third, be willing to exercise leadership in confronting behavior that may be easier to ignore. The harnessing skill must also be immediate (without hostility or guilt). Next, let the employee take responsibility by making the commitment to improve. The final guideline is to be aware of consequences and steps for following up if the person refuses to change or if his/her behavior does not improve.

Putting it all together

The electrical contractor's workforce is no different than any other industry when it comes to categorizing the types of individuals that work in the organization. All electrical contractors have high-performance employees, stable employees, and employees in chaos working within their ranks. The key is to identify chaotic employees, set performance expectations for them, and use harnessing tools to move them from the chaotic to stable category, which, in turn, makes them more productive. Those that cannot or will not change should eventually be removed from your business. Just think, they may even end up working for your competitor. Either way, you'll be in a much more competitive position within your market and enjoy a more satisfied workforce.

Mitchell is president of Integrated Management Group in St. Louis.


Sidebar: Putting Out Fires

Following are some simple steps supervisors should use when confronting a problem situation:

  1. State directly and specifically what you see happening. Stick to the facts and be as specific as possible. For example, say you're dealing with an employee that is showing up late to work. You might say, “Mark, I have noticed that you came in late on Monday and Tuesday.”

  2. State your concerns and the consequences of what you have observed. Depending on the person, situation, and your relationship, ask them to share the consequences rather than tell them yourself. Do so only if you feel it won't lead to unproductive excuses or a power struggle. For example, you might say, “When you come in late, other employees see this and feel that they can come in late also. Our customers see this, and think we don't have a workforce that cares. This will damage our reputation.”

  3. Invite and listen to comments. In this situation, it's important to use your listening skills and try to understand the employee's point of view. Most of the time your perceptions will be correct, but recognize that sometimes the problem is your own perception of the individual's behavior. During this type of communication, you may need to correct your perception or your expectations. Don't argue. Rather, listen and move on to the next step. Ignore excuses and personal attacks that keep you from your purpose of gaining a commitment to improved performance. Remember that you control the conversation.

  4. If necessary, review your expectations regarding the behavior and/or provide needed information and training. Referring back to the late employee example, you may say, “All employees are expected to be at their assigned work area at starting time and remain in their work area except at breaks or lunch.”

  5. Ask for a commitment to improve the behavior. For instance, you could say, “Can I count on you showing up on time from now on?”

  6. Acknowledge and let the person know that you appreciate the commitment. Then you might conclude the exchange by saying, “Thank you for correcting the problem and making a commitment to report to work on time. This will make your coworkers and our customers happier.”