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Why a Little Pessimism Can Benefit You as an HR Manager

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Seeing the silver lining can make your life easier in many ways. However, there are benefits of pessimism in the workplace. As an HR manager, having a little pessimism can go a long way in preventing workplace problems from getting out of hand.

No, you shouldn't be purposefully negative at work. But, a substantial part of any HR manager's job is to reduce a company's risk of lawsuits, government fines and excessive turnover. You'll be more successful in these areas if you anticipate how things can go wrong, rather than assuming they will always go right.

Take a look at two scenarios where a little pessimism leads to a more positive outcome.

The Sexual Harassment Complaint

Consider what an optimist and a pessimist would say if a female employee, Jane, came in and said, "Bob told me my dress was nice. That's sexual harassment!"

The Optimist: "Jane, I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it. It is a very nice dress." This could be the right call—if this is the first complaint you've ever received about Bob, it's doubtful that this is a serious offense. One comment certainly doesn't rise to the level of pervasive or severe harassment. But consider the alternative.

The Pessimist: "Jane, can you tell me a little bit more? Is there anything else that Bob has said or done that makes you feel uncomfortable?" You may find out that Jane was overreacting and Bob didn't mean anything by his comment. But, you may instead find out that Bob has a habit of focusing on his female co-workers' looks rather than their performance, and several women in the department feel uncomfortable with it. You're lucky Jane came forward when she did, because now you can address this with Bob, keep a close eye on him and prevent this from becoming a lawsuit.

The Takeaway: Never let a complaint about something serious and/or illegal go with out investigation. This not only protects the company against lawsuits, but also assures your employees that you listen to their concerns and that the company doesn't tolerate bad behavior.

The Salary Discrepancy

Imagine you're looking at salary reports and notice that Helen and Heath have the same job title, but Heath's salary is $5000 higher. The Optimist: "HR reviews and approves every salary offer, so I'm sure there is a logical explanation for this difference."The pessimist: "Even though HR reviews and approves every salary offer, this is a really large difference. I better find out what's going on here." This type of pessimism doesn't mean launching a full-fledged investigation into salary policies. After all, you know that salaries are scrutinized carefully before job offers are made. Still, this situation calls for some scrutiny.

The Takeaway: Do some digging into both employees' professional background. If you find out that Heath has a master's degree and five years of experience, while Helen has a bachelor's degree and three years of experience, then case closed. There's a logical and legal reason. Although, you may wish to change titles to reflect the differences in experience and education.

If, on the other hand, you find out that Helen has a master's degree and five years of experience, while Heath has less education and less years on the job or you determine that their experience and educational background are equal, you've caught a problem before it can turn into a lawsuit.

Whatever you're dealing with, looking at the worst case scenario can help you identify potential problems before they explode into something serious. Pessimism can catch issues when they are small, while optimism encourages you to ignore them until they explode.

So, try to be an optimist who believes most people are good, but investigate like a pessimist. Every time.

Photo: Creative Commons

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