How Toby Should Have Handled the Top 4 HR Issues from The Office
We’ve all laughed at Michael Scott’s antics or Jim Halpert and Dwight Schrute’s epic prank wars—but would we really want to work at Dunder Mifflin, day in and day out? The Office was a crazy, HR-disaster-filled workplace, no matter how lovable the characters.
We don’t mean to jump on the Toby Flenderson hate-wagon (other than maybe because he’s the Scranton Strangler). He had to deal with a boss who constantly vented his irrational hatred of him and HR in general. But let’s face it: effective HR could have made things a lot better for everyone at the Scranton branch.
Before you banish us to the annex and tell us we’re the silent killer, we have a few suggestions for how Toby should have handled the top HR issues in The Office—just in case you have a Michael or a Dwight in your workplace.
#1 Don’t Ignore Complaints—Take Action
In season two, Michael takes charge of all the unresolved conflicts and complaints filed with HR, much to Toby’s dismay. In this case, Michael’s instincts aren’t bad. Toby’s passive approach—just listening and doing nothing to resolve issues brought to him—is a no-no. It leaves you with a big pile (and a warehouse shelf) of unresolved complaints and a lot of resentful employees. Contrary to what Toby believes, things do not have a way of working themselves out.
Complaints and conflicts should be taken seriously and resolved as early as possible. It should go without saying, though, that Michael’s approach to conflict resolution isn’t right either—definitely don’t lock two employees in a room for a cage match. Instead, follow these recommended steps:
- Develop a plan for dealing with workplace conflict and communicate it to your employees.
- When someone files a complaint or you notice an issue, conduct an investigation into the incident as soon as possible.
- Meet with the individuals concerned in a private setting.
- Depending on the severity and nature of the conflict, make a decision or have everyone agree on next steps.
- Create a report and reexamine organizational policies for any contributing factors.
Another golden rule for conflict resolution (and HR in general) that both Toby and Michael violate is neutrality: you can’t make equitable decisions about misconduct or be perceived as a trustworthy mediator if you’re too close to the situation or the people involved. The solution to this is bringing in someone neutral, whether that’s another HR staff member or an outside consultant.
The key to conflict resolution is to actually resolve the conflict, not just ignore it and let it fester. Ultimately, you should work together with leadership to create the kind of workplace that invites openness and transparency so employees feel safe voicing concerns.
#2 Have an Office Romance Policy—Just Not Out of Spite
After three whole seasons of “will they, won’t they” tension, there’s no denying the cathartic jubilation when Jim and Pam finally get together. Enter everyone’s favorite wet blanket, Toby. He sees Pam kiss Jim on the cheek and reacts petulantly by sending everyone a memo, reminding them of the company’s policy against public displays of affection. Though he does it out of jealousy, Toby gets this one sort of right: you should definitely have a clear, documented office romance policy, including guidance on PDA.
As with resolving workplace conflict quickly, your goal in creating rules for dating in the workplace is as much for the people involved as it is for bystanders. You want to minimize any discomfort or negativity, whether the relationship is all roses or crashes and burns.
Here are some additional considerations when setting down rules for employee romance:
- Dating happens: People who work together end up dating each other—over half of employees admit doing so. It’s a reality, so it’s best to be prepared.
- It can be messy: Your office romance policy needs to be connected to your sexual harassment policy to protect employees. While employee relationships may begin as consensual, there’s always the risk of a bad breakup fight seeping into your workplace with accusations of unwanted attention or retaliation.
- Power dynamics are real: It’s not a good idea to allow subordinates and managers to date. There’s an inescapable perception of favoritism from other employees. More perniciously, it invites quid pro quo. Don’t believe us? Just look at Jan and Michael’s on-again, off-again, lawsuit-capped saga.
#3 Engage Your Employees
The Christmas paper-wrapped cardboard desk, the Dwight doppelganger, the stacked “quad” desk, the Friday that was actually a Thursday—Jim’s list of pranks is a monument to the show’s creativity and his character’s penchant for torturing Dwight (even though Dwight kind of deserves it sometimes). From an HR standpoint, there’s also something else at work here, other than the obvious personality clash: lack of engagement.
It’s clear that Jim is bored, unsatisfied, and needs a challenge. But between Toby’s own lack of engagement, Michael’s chaotic attempts at being the “world’s best boss,” and Dunder Mifflin’s equally dysfunctional management culture, it’s not surprising that Jim channels his energy so unproductively (to the audience’s delight, of course).
While HR can’t single-handedly change company culture or be the ones to engage employees on a day-to-day basis, here’s how you can contribute to a more engaged workforce:
- Hire and onboard with your organization’s values as guides. This will help you find and train employees who care about what your company cares about.
- Create a clear compensation plan and stick to it. A paycheck isn’t everything, but it can be a powerful carrot for employee performance management. A clear promotional path can also keep dissatisfaction over rank and pay at bay.
- Give employees opportunities for development. Whether that’s a mentoring program, an employee development plan, training classes, etc., HR can help build a growth mindset by providing resources and strategies for learning in the workplace.
- Encourage open communication between employees and managers. HR can’t force management to be more open, but you can work with your business’s leadership team to show them the importance of creating an open culture.
- Understand why people leave. When people quit, don’t just show them to the door. Use it as a moment to learn more about your organization, its culture, and what you could do to improve it.
#4 Rein In Toxic Bosses
It’s hard to pick between all of Michael’s cringe-inducing moments. Endearing though he may be, his insistence on being thought of as fun, his lack of empathy, and his insatiable desire to be loved make for an often uncomfortable and sometimes outright hostile work environment. His handling of Oscar’s sexual identity has got to be one of his top terrible moments. He outs him to the whole office and essentially sexually harasses Oscar by kissing him.
Judging from a real-life perspective, Toby bears a lot of responsibility for all the dysfunction Michael brings to Dunder Mifflin (and in Oscar’s case, Toby is the one who outs Oscar to Michael, so there’s that). Bad bosses don’t just make it tough for employees to be at work; they’re also one of the main reasons people leave a job—our research shows that 44 percent of employees have left a job because of a boss.
So how should HR handle bad bosses?
Don’t Hire a Bad Boss in the First Place
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends thoroughly screening management candidates to avoid creating a bad situation in the first place.
- Check their resume: have they had lots of managerial jobs but with short tenures, suggesting an inability to get along with coworkers?
- Ask open-ended questions about their management style during the interview process to screen “team-minded” individuals from those who only consider personal glory.
- Pay close attention to their references. Any negativity there is a red flag.
Train (and Retrain) Managers
Managing people isn’t a natural ability. Just because someone is good at their job doesn’t mean they’ll be good with a team. In Michael’s case, for example, the show references his background as a gifted salesman. But a good salesman doesn’t necessarily make a good branch manager.
Provide initial training for new managers as well as remedial training for managers who aren’t performing as well. The cost of training is going to be much less than the cost of a bad boss, which includes higher turnover, lower productivity, and higher employee stress.
Why Are You the Way That You Are?
Anytime Toby steps in to curtail one of Michael’s wild moments in The Office, he’s met with open hostility. “I hate so much about the things that you choose to be,” Michael tells the timid HR representative. Beyond his altercations with Michael, Toby’s half-hearted attempts at keeping the peace around the office often stop with a muttered dissent. He’s not a great example of what HR can do to make employees feel valued, supported, and engaged at work.
There’s a better way to do HR, one that doesn’t involve hiding complaints in a warehouse or sending passive-aggressive memos. To borrow one of Michael’s most infamous lines, we don’t think HR should choose between being feared or loved—with the right strategy and attitude, people will be afraid of how much they love HR.
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