The Accidental Supervisor

My longtime friend, Linwood Smith, V.P. Risk Management of T.A. Loving Company selected this title for a presentation he asked me to make at this week’s Carolinas AGC combined Annual Safety and Human Resources Conference.

 Linwood and I share several passions.  One is to get the HR and safety functions intertwined so that they collaborate in the ever-increasing areas where safety, risk and employment law issues intermingle.  I have been preaching this particular gospel for years, and often present “HR For The Safety Professional” or “Why Safety Matters To HR” clients and business groups.  The CAGC Conference involved joint panel sessions of HR and safety professionals, as well as separate HR and safety tracks where HR folks attended safety sessions and vise versa.  Hats off to CAGC staffers Bill Stricker, Allen Gray and Letiscia Perrin.  We saw some great discussions and the two groups had fun together.

Another shared passion is working to formalize how we select, train, and develop frontline supervisors.  T.A. Loving, a respected North Carolina-based regional heavy contractor has more purposefully addressed this topic than many larger companies.

 Our premise is that even Fortune 100 companies with internal “universities” often do not really know how they selected many frontline supervisors and what factors make some of these supervisors “superstars.”

The workplace reality is that often we promote employees who are skilled at their craft until they reach a point where they spend 85% of their time managing employees.  We may have spent 10 to 20 years developing their technical skills, but once they join “management,” they’re often lucky to attend an annual labor and employment law conference.

 The construction sector is the best example of promoting from the ranks, but is hardly unique.  Titans UPS and Federal Express are justly proud of promoting from the ranks and the “practical” culture this can create.  Likewise, while I was speaking yesterday at the annual Georgia Safety Health and Environmental Conference, one healthcare employer commented that her industry probably promoted skilled professionals into management roles with even less “management development” efforts than occurring in the construction setting.

 Ponder for a moment how many legal problems relating to OSHA, retaliation and discrimination claims result from supervisor error.  How many union drives were avoidable had supervisors practiced basic management and communication skills.  How many mergers were hamstrung by weak frontline management?

 And rest assured, as in responsibility for establishing a “safety culture,” the ultimate responsibility rests with us in upper management.  Lest you think that I am being self-righteous, I have responsibilities for attorneys in 31 offices, and you should not believe that law firms don’t wrestle with the same issues.  Even worse . . . we have to deal with lawyers.  Sigh. . . .

 Like so many problems, we know the solution, we’re just not sure how to get there.  That’s why I developed my “Accidental Supervisor” training to teach a simple practical way to audit what you are doing right and wrong, and then more purposefully and formally develop your frontline supervision.

 As a first step, consider which of your supervisors excel.  What do they do that sets them apart?  Define the meaning of a great supervisor in the context of your business.  Develop a list of skills, competencies and behaviors for different positions, and then determine how the ”great” supervisors developed these traits.  Sure . . . to some extent, individuals may be born with innate skills, but someone somewhere mentioned, taught or set an example that assisted even those “born leaders.”

 The next step is develop a development program, which deserves a separate discussion. 

 HR “Tool Box Talks”

I want to propose one modest step. Construction employers develop weekly or even daily “toolbox talks” on various safety topics.  At brief pre-shift meetings, foreman review these one page plain-English (or Spanish) summaries on fall protection, struck-by hazards, etc.  So let’s develop “supervisor skills” toolbox talks and start using them to explain and repetitively reinforce basic management, HR, legal and safety concepts.

 I pledged to start developing and placing such “talks” on our site every week or two.  Hey, it’s a step in the right direction.



About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
This entry was posted in cultural changes, discipline and discharge, employer benefit plans, management and leadership, performance management, supervisor development and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s