Q. After several months in my new job, I was called in for a meeting with the human resources manager. She informed me that several long-term employees were unhappy with my leadership style and felt they were being micromanaged. I was devastated by this news, because I thought everything was going well.
The department I inherited had not been properly managed for several years, so I knew this would be a difficult transition. After I explained the need for a different approach, we implemented several changes, which everyone agreed upon. However, I did have to intervene when people reverted to their previous habits.
When I asked why the employees had not come to me directly, the HR manager said they felt I was unapproachable. She cited several examples of comments I had made which were taken completely out of context, making me sound harsh and dictatorial. I do tend to be very direct, but I always try to be diplomatic.
After the discussion with HR, I met with the staff, assured them of my support and asked them to come to me with any concerns. I seem to have regained my composure, but I still feel wary and mistrustful. Do you have any advice?
A: If it makes you feel any better, many managers tasked with turning around a department have been blindsided by unexpected reprimands. In their eagerness to succeed, these well-intentioned leaders frequently underestimate the emotional attachment to past practices and the leverage possessed by long-service staff members.
Under these circumstances, managers and employees often have widely varying perceptions. You consider yourself “direct but diplomatic,” while they view you as “unapproachable.” You thought everyone supported recent changes, but they felt false agreement was safer than honest feedback. As the old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit.
Holding a supportive staff meeting was a good first step, but now you must follow through. To encourage open communication, modify your “direct” style by asking more questions and listening carefully to the answers. Make your expectations for change clear, but involve employees in implementation planning. If you become a more responsive leader, you may eventually have a more receptive staff.
Q. I was recently dismissed from my last job and am now looking for another one. Many applications ask, “May we contact your previous employer?” I’m not sure how to answer that question. If I say yes, I’m afraid someone will call and learn that I was fired. Should I just say no and explain my answer later?
A. While limiting communication with a current employer is reasonable in a job hunt, prohibiting contact with a previous one looks fishy. If hiring managers believe you have something to hide, they could easily screen you out before the interview stage.
On the other hand, saying “yes” to this question is not particularly risky, because most companies won’t check references until after they’ve talked with you. Just be sure that if you do get an interview, you are able to offer a reasonable explanation for your departure.
Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.”