Q: I am finding it impossible to do my new job. I was recently hired as the office manager for a small law firm. Before I arrived, the four partners were responsible for running the office. They've had one paralegal more or less taking care of things, but there was no true structure or organization.
Although I'm trying to make improvements, the employees scrutinize and question every decision. For example, I told our file clerk to cover the front desk during the receptionist's lunch hour. She said she never had to do that before and then asked if she could just answer the phones from her cubicle.
Another problem is that the paralegal seems resentful and refuses to give up control. Whenever I create a new procedure, she just says the old way has worked fine for the past 11 years. How can I succeed under these circumstances?
A: When people are required to alter long-established habits, some resistance is to be expected. However, you may be making a difficult situation worse. By implementing changes without explanation and expecting employees to obey without comment, you're automatically generating opposition.
With the file clerk, for example, a better approach would be to explain the importance of front desk coverage, describe what you need her to do and then see if she has questions. Even if remote phone answering is not an option, there's nothing wrong with her asking about it.
I suspect, however, that these individual disagreements actually reflect a greater problem — that is, a lack of systematic change planning. The correct way to begin this office makeover would have been to thoroughly evaluate current operations, develop specific improvement goals and then get them approved by the partners.
Next, the partners could meet with the staff to review this plan and answer any questions. To lessen the shock for the paralegal, whose resentment at being dethroned is hardly surprising, they could talk with her separately and explain how her role is being redefined.
If the partners take ownership of this process and are seen as the driving force, you're less likely to be viewed as an interloper. So if the above steps have not yet been taken, perhaps it's time to back up and make a fresh start.
Worried about reference checks
Q: I have some concerns about reference checks. Because my last position was eliminated, my reason for leaving should be described as a layoff. However, I don't know if this is what potential employers are being told. One of my management friends agreed to pose as an interviewer and call the company to see what they say about me. What do you think about this?
A: If you had a good work history and your departure was clearly due to a workforce reduction, then you probably have nothing to worry about. But if there were performance issues or disagreements with management, you might have cause for concern.
Having your friend call should certainly help to answer this question. Or you might consider employing a reputable reference checking service. However, considering that many companies share only factual information, like position title and dates of employment, you may discover that they aren't saying much at all.