EP 41: Honest, Direct and Timely Leadership with Farrah Rifelj

Honest, Direct and Timely Leadership

Oftentimes, businesses are able to locate a problem, but are unsure of where to begin when it comes to solving it. Instead of attacking the issue head-on, they wait for the issue to worsen. However, through good management and appropriate solutions, it is possible to hold your team and leadership accountable so that these problems are handled and prevented. Here to break down this topic for us today is Farrah Rifelj, a partner and member of the Management Committee, as well as Co-Chair of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee at Michael Best & Friedrich, LLP.

What You’ll Learn In Today’s Episode

  • What it takes to set up a great offense so that you are not only serving your organization, but also the people within your organization. (2:02)
  • Why creating a structured process around constructive and honest feedback to your employees is key. (6:30)
  • How to remain calm and available in the face of adversity so your team feels confident in their leadership. (10:30)

Actionable Takeaway for HR Professionals

  • Be honest about what you can handle and ask for help when required. (20:47)

Actionable Takeaway for Executives

  • Be open to alternative options and keep your eyes open. (18:05)

Ideas Worth Sharing

“A really important takeaway that transcends human resources and employment law … is the importance of honest, direct and timely feedback to employees.” - Farrah Rifelj Click To Tweet

Resources In Today’s Episode

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Click Here for Audio Transcript

Traci Scherck: Welcome to talent optimization today we are having a very strategic conversation about.

Traci Scherck: How we look at our organization and those issues that could potentially pop up so when we look at how do we diagnose potential issues into the future and what they are now essentially.

Traci Scherck: We want to ensure that we are playing really great offense and we’re not waiting for lawyers to play Defense for us.

Traci Scherck: So with that today I have with us farrah Rifelj and farrah is a partner, a member of the Management Committee and co chair that diversity equity and inclusion committee of Michael Best & Friedrich Ferrah welcome to the show.

Farrah Rifelj: Thanks much for having me Tracy and I should add that i’ve been practicing this in the area of Labor and employment law for over 18 years, so I have a little bit of insight into what it’s like advising and litigating

Farrah Rifelj: for employers in these areas.

Traci Scherck: awesome and you know, Sarah I hand picked you to be on on our show and have a conversation because of the fact that we had worked together in the past and what I so appreciated about our work together and, specifically, working with you.

Traci Scherck: Is the way that you will look into and ask questions about how did these decisions impact and how do we ensure that we truly are setting up a great offense to best serve our organization, but also best serve the people inside of our organization.

Farrah Rifelj: yeah Tracy I think that it’s really important, you know as your lawyer advisor particularly.

Farrah Rifelj: depending upon when I enter this scenario, but the goal is always to obviously address a legal issue if it arises, as well as deal with.

Farrah Rifelj: And and advise on compliance, giving the best options that make the most sense for for the business right and a lot of times those there’s multiple considerations.

Farrah Rifelj: The direct letter of the law, what does it say and sometimes there are different opportunities for compliance right.

Farrah Rifelj: And then, looking at what is best for the business and how it impacts, the people and having that conversation around it to.

Farrah Rifelj: figure out what’s the best solution, and then also like you mentioned looking at things proactively, so you know you can figure out how to best put yourself in the best shoes going forward versus always trying to you know bat away the issues down the line.

Traci Scherck: yeah absolutely and as we really look at how do we optimize the people inside of our organization which is so often, you know what i’m talking with.

Traci Scherck: Organizations about you know, one of those things that I think we’ve had some conversations about and i’d love you to kind of dig into this a little bit is.

Traci Scherck: What does feedback look like and and how can we ensure that that feedback.

Traci Scherck: ensures that that employee understands it has that key clarity, but also, you know if something were to come up heaven forbid right that that we are ensuring that we have that offense in place to really have the best Defense.

Farrah Rifelj: mm hmm right, and so I think one of the things that I had shared with you, that was a really important takeaway that transcends I think human resources and employment law and a lot of different.

Farrah Rifelj: Aspects of employment law is really the importance of of honest direct and timely feedback to employees, it really covers both the human side as well as.

Farrah Rifelj: covers the legal side of things and that’s because you know, on the human side.

Farrah Rifelj: I don’t know if you’ve ever read this book but it’s called radical candor it talks about the importance right of getting that honest feedback, because most often it’s.

Farrah Rifelj: The reason why we don’t do, it is because it’s hard for the person, giving the feedback to do it, they feel bad they feel like they’re going to hurt somebody’s feelings they feel like.

Farrah Rifelj: You know, am I am I reviewing this right it’s just uncomfortable right.

Farrah Rifelj: Sometimes, some people are really good at a lot of people are not right.

Farrah Rifelj: But, on the human side on the receiving end of it, you got to know what’s wrong in order to have an opportunity to fix it right so it’s actually you know it’s it’s being thoughtful to if you can think about it that way to give that type of feedback.

Farrah Rifelj: Of course, they may not agree with it, but you know down the road, I think it usually pans out.

Farrah Rifelj: To give them the opportunity to improve or you know realize hey maybe this isn’t for me because that’s sometimes what happens as well, so I think it’s really important, just as a and the human element to be able to do that.

Farrah Rifelj: And also, you know if you’re looking at it from the business perspective, the desire is to improve the business continue moving forward.

Farrah Rifelj: execute on strategic plans if you have a performer that’s not doing what they need to do, but you haven’t told him yet.

Farrah Rifelj: they’re not they’re not going to get better magically poof by on their own right I gotta figure that out, usually so that’s really important, but then on the legal side it’s it’s so important because.

Farrah Rifelj: You know, one where do you see the most losses, you see the lawsuits even if they’re not meritorious right, even if they don’t have merit you see them where people.

Farrah Rifelj: are upset they’re emotionally upset about something or two they’re surprised by the actions, the company takes, and those are the situations where you’re more likely to see a lawsuit you know I can give you examples where you know, maybe an employer.

Farrah Rifelj: You know screwed up a little bit right on the letter of the law, but they were very kind to an employee accepting and they had kind of let them know ahead of time, the relationship was was still good, and you know what.

Farrah Rifelj: No lost it happened right I I can’t make any promises, obviously, but those types of extra legal.

Farrah Rifelj: Factors often do weigh in, and you know a lot of people continue to litigate things because based on emotions and i’ve seen a former employees do that too.

Farrah Rifelj: So you know wraps all around getting back to that you know that honest direct and timely feedback.

Farrah Rifelj: And how you go about that there’s obviously a lot of different ways to go about it but it’s it’s best if you do have a structured process at least and then.

Farrah Rifelj: outside of the structured process to So if you have 90 day six months one year, you know annual reviews and in a format that’s meaningful not just you know rubber stamping.

Farrah Rifelj: But then also take those opportunities at the time right to give meaningful critical.

Farrah Rifelj: Constructive feedback to people when they turn a project, then you know here’s what was great here’s what was not.

Farrah Rifelj: I can relate to my own practice right because i’ve been here a long time, we have associates that we work with.

Farrah Rifelj: Just personal example you know if I edit a document, just like I do with my clients if I do it internally with an associate i’m redlining that i’m sitting down with them beyond that and saying hey here, why here’s why I made these changes and here’s how you can improve next time.

Farrah Rifelj: And then also pointing out, you know what they did what they did well that’s really important as well.

Traci Scherck: Absolutely and what’s popping in my head or two things renee browns one of my favorite quotes of hers is clear as kind.

Traci Scherck: and unclear is unkind right.

Traci Scherck: And this clarity that when we can share that and really communicate that that’s what we’re being kind and so going back to one of those comments you made, I.

Traci Scherck: guess what performance conversations are hard, but if we can look at it in a different light to say clear as kind and unclear unkind.

Traci Scherck: for whatever reason, it makes it easier, especially when i’m coaching clients on this they’re like oh okay I got it no I can go have this conversation like pink rich document it please.

Traci Scherck: Please, please documented.

Farrah Rifelj: Probably please do document yes.

Farrah Rifelj: You know.

Traci Scherck: In the other side of it, you know I love what you said about hey you know the employer may have screwed up you know, sometimes you screw up, but if you’re kind when you’re doing that it’s you know we we talked about it as happy alumni how are you going to create happy alumni.

Traci Scherck: Even if you know you have to let somebody go, how can you do it, to ensure that they’re still going to support the organization later and not like you know talk.

Traci Scherck: About you all over social media in a very negative way right, so you know I guess Those are two things that you know really popped up, as you are chatting that I thought were really interesting that kind of brought that back together but yes please document that.

Traci Scherck: yeah yeah um.

Traci Scherck: You know so we’re having lots of conversations right now about covid and what the vaccine mandates are and and you know so many questions and we’re seeing some leaders do some really interesting things.

Traci Scherck: On you know whether that’s HR or leaders and organizations and whatnot so i’m really curious, how does leadership impact on you know organizations and what they’re doing, especially as we’re looking at these vaccine mandates right now.

Farrah Rifelj: yeah yeah and I think that.

Farrah Rifelj: it’s such a novel area feels funny to say that because we feel like we’ve been living it for so long, already and everybody’s probably just done with it, I know I am I know my kids are.

Farrah Rifelj: I know my colleagues are and but at the same time, we do need to remember you know it is a novel area we are.

Farrah Rifelj: Learning things are evolving there’s a patchwork of different opinions and laws and requirements and.

Farrah Rifelj: From states to jurisdiction or to local jurisdictions to you know federal law and it’s a little bit of a moving target it feels like and we just have to be be nimble.

Farrah Rifelj: But you asked specifically about the role that leadership can play in this, and I think that really it’s twofold one you know when there’s a storm brewing right and you’re.

Farrah Rifelj: One of one of the people on the ship right you’re going to look to the captain and say how are we getting out of this, how are we getting out of this right, so it’s the same type of thing if there’s calm.

Farrah Rifelj: You know, rational thinking there’s a.

Farrah Rifelj: desire to get input from your team right in whatever fashion, that is, I know a lot of employers have done no surveys on comfort levels with you know for for those employers who were were remote at some period.

Farrah Rifelj: Surveys on.

Farrah Rifelj: Whether employee employees had obligations outside of work, for example, you know when school shut down they had to kind of gauge okay what our employees responsibilities that are a little bit different in covid are we able to manage those you know for employers who had.

Farrah Rifelj: Employees who mostly had to be on site that was maybe a little bit of a different inquiry but being able to engage with them and understand at least what.

Farrah Rifelj: Your employee population is dealing with at that time is really important, and for a leader to actually say, and I use leader broadly of course i’m not expecting the CEOs of companies to engage one on one with every single employee.

Farrah Rifelj: Although a lot of them have done, you know town hall type.

Farrah Rifelj: inquiries that you can do that through your HR department through you know, a mass type communication to the employees or other whatever other standard communication tools, you have so really saying.

Farrah Rifelj: I care about you, through those types of communications as a leader, but then the other one is is when the company sets you know policies and procedures and requirements that are applicable to everybody right.

Farrah Rifelj: Then, make sure as a leader you’re following them right because you know at a minimum you’re following them linear visible to everybody else right.

Farrah Rifelj: Because if the leadership doesn’t believe in the policies that are broadly applicable to everybody and they’re not you know they’re talking the talk, but they’re not walking the walk.

Farrah Rifelj: that’s a huge problem for employee morale and it’s a huge problem for compliance, you know employees are going to say well.

Farrah Rifelj: You know so and so doesn’t have to follow the policy it must just must just be there because we have to have it, for you know and state in case public health starts knocking on the door, so we can show it to them.

Farrah Rifelj: So it does really make an impact and I think I mentioned to you know it doesn’t pass it does impact employee morale too because.

Farrah Rifelj: If they think well you know, there are exceptions to the rules they say that are applicable to everybody will.

Farrah Rifelj: You know clearly more, some people are more important than others and then then pandemic when people are struggling with a lot of things they didn’t have to deal with before and when there’s quite frankly a worker shortage.

Farrah Rifelj: that’s a hard message to get as an employee.

Traci Scherck: yeah absolutely and I think that there’s also ways to really do this with compassion right like we talked about as we’re you know really looking at core staff are we’re in this worker shortage.

Traci Scherck: You know if we don’t treat her staff of compassion guess what it’s really easy for them to pick up and leave and go somewhere else, and you know there’s rules that guess what organizations may not necessarily agree with, but yet needs to follow.

Traci Scherck: And when we look at some of the lawsuits that I see coming out and some of the blogs i’m reading i’m like where’s this stuff coming from.

Traci Scherck: You know, and so much of it.

Traci Scherck: When I read between the lines, has to do with the management and leadership is not being compassionate and truly listening into what are the needs of those employees so i’m really curious.

Traci Scherck: You know how do you be compassionate yet firm with rules and with the feedback that you’re receiving to do something about it, that really helps to create that organization, not only that has that legal compliance, but also really cares about the staff.

Inside of their organization.

Farrah Rifelj: yeah I think the first one is listen, even though you don’t agree right there’s a lot of different opinions out there, but there’s also.

Farrah Rifelj: You know the requirements and the guidance from the Federal State and local governments right and so there’s there’s CDC guidance telling you, you know what.

Farrah Rifelj: The CDC recommends there’s OSHA right telling you particularly for some organizations and there’s there’s going to be for employers of 100 and plus.

Farrah Rifelj: You know, vaccination mandate or testing option that’s going to be coming out any day now right for federal contractors

Farrah Rifelj: Oh yeah yeah yeah well I did that this week for those of us who are in Dane county and Madison right, I think it was yesterday, the day before the day is spun, together, we had the updated mask mandate.

Farrah Rifelj: So I think that you know, listening to people and I get it to you know, sometimes you, you get.

Farrah Rifelj: You get the sick of somebody when they’re saying the same thing over and over and they’re complaining right, so it does have an endpoint right.

Farrah Rifelj: But you know, listening to the concerns of people in a reasonable fashion, allowing them reasonable opportunity right to state concerns questions, etc, and for you to be able to instead of just saying you know here’s the rule, providing some reasoning behind it right.

Farrah Rifelj: So they have a chance to understand where the company is coming from and usually.

Farrah Rifelj: You know if it’s a mandate that’s pretty easy to say look our hands are tied, this is what we are required to do by the government, we understand that some people may you know disagree with it.

Farrah Rifelj: But you know we don’t have a lot of choice in the matter right, and you know if, to the extent that businesses decided this is really important to.

Farrah Rifelj: You can add that in right but explaining the reasonings but you know, listening to concerns or questions.

Farrah Rifelj: about it as well again lead giving a reasonable opportunity because you know the person that walks in every day 50 days in a row with the same complaint that you’ve told them.

Farrah Rifelj: No, we have to follow the law i’m not talking about people i’m talking about you know, the ones who have an honest question or concern about about a new consideration or proposed policy or something that’s you know kind of you’ve highlighted hey this is coming down the pipe right.

Farrah Rifelj: But, but other than that you know just providing the explanation to the extent you can.

Farrah Rifelj: as to why you’re making the decisions you’re making and then keeping keeping you know in in mind to the communication about Look, we are thinking about our employees.

Farrah Rifelj: we’re thinking of your safety, and you know we’ve evaluated what the rules, regulations recommendations are and here’s what we think is best for our business.

Traci Scherck: awesome Thank you so much for that and yeah it’s like they’re we have the individuals that are in our office every day that become our development opportunities, and then we have the ones that.

Traci Scherck: come up with those really hard things where it’s like oh man, we don’t want to make this decision, but we know we need to, and those are you know almost harder at times right.

Farrah Rifelj: So, you know as we.

Traci Scherck: kind of start to to close out our conversation today and for Thank you so much for having the conversation, and you know as our listeners are listening and going.

Traci Scherck: Where is the legal compliance part of this What are those things that I have to do you know i’m just grateful that that you made the time for us here today, so what is one you know takeaway for our CEOs and our executives listening in.

Farrah Rifelj: yeah I mean I.

Farrah Rifelj: I think that I mentioned before.

Farrah Rifelj: This is a time of a lot of movements of employees right.

Farrah Rifelj: And so there’s there’s.

Farrah Rifelj: Key key on the mind is retention right.

Farrah Rifelj: of employees and thinking about those things but also we should look at that as a good opportunity to bring in new talent right we’re where we can and how you can attract new talent.

Farrah Rifelj: And those are options and for some of the employers out there, that may mean looking beyond their normal geography right.

Farrah Rifelj: Because with the pandemic, a lot of us have learned that look remote work can work right, not for every job not you know a lot of your your manufacturing jobs or distribution jobs those types of things, but there are a lot of jobs.

Farrah Rifelj: That can be done remotely and so that opens up an opportunity for our executive teams to say, maybe we can look beyond you know our current job geographies or maybe you can use it as a retention tool right for somebody who’s looking to move.

Farrah Rifelj: That said, where the legal compliance piece comes in here as a word of caution is that if we are going into different states right, you may all of a sudden, have a whole new.

Farrah Rifelj: picture of legal obligations and requirements that you need to deal with you may need to register to do business in another state, you have to look at the tax implications and you also may be inviting or having to deal with a whole new web of employment laws.

Farrah Rifelj: That you don’t have to in Wisconsin so, so I would say it looking look at those opportunities if you’re in you know that boat, but then also really consider you know the pluses and minuses to those situations and it’s a whole new world of opportunity, but I would go in eyes wide open.

Traci Scherck: yeah absolutely and it’s funny because we just had a conversation with an employer saying hey Do you realize now you have to do, he verified or like.

Traci Scherck: You know, because of the State they’re going in and what that looks like.

Traci Scherck: Or you know hey you know do what local Labor market do we pay off of now, because they live, where cost of living is really low, but yet we’re entire, how do we do that, and all those processes and policies.

Traci Scherck: now become really important so it’s definitely a huge opportunity that comes with it, some key things to really think through.

Farrah Rifelj: Right right yeah and I think you know pay equity is one of those things that a lot of States are taking very, very seriously right now to sell the compensation question you know gets to be even more elaborate than, then you know at first blush.

Traci Scherck: yeah absolutely so what’s one you know takeaway for our human resource practitioners that are listening in today.

Farrah Rifelj: You know, when I think about your human resource practices, I think of how your job has must have morphed and exploded since covid started.

Farrah Rifelj: So what I would say is you know be honest about what what how your job has changed right.

Farrah Rifelj: What you’re what you’re a be able to handle what you haven’t been able to handle right, we all have our priority list that on those great days or those great years when everything is going well, that you’re able to to.

Farrah Rifelj: You know check off, and I think during coven look companies had to shift change priorities things that were in the strategic plan, maybe.

Farrah Rifelj: Or the list to get done, you know, had to shift to a later date, and I don’t think that’s any different within HR, but a lot of the new requirements and responsibilities and to keep updated fell on their shoulders right.

Farrah Rifelj: So I think that it’s important to do a reset when you can and say what have I added to my plate, what have I not done and have a.

Farrah Rifelj: Real conversation about that and deceive you know going forward what’s that going to look like, and you know you know we may not always get it, but but asking for help is usually not a bad thing.

Traci Scherck: No, not at all, not at all.

Traci Scherck: And you know you kind of keep this up perfectly fair Thank you so much for that and that is, you know if you are one of those HR practitioners, that is, at that point where you’re going, you know.

Traci Scherck: I know that there’s a whole HR program that I really need to outlay inside of my organization.

Traci Scherck: And it starts with do I have the right foundation from my org chart to you know exempt versus non exempt employees to the job descriptions and place that actually protect our organization and are super clear.

Traci Scherck: about what jobs in essential duties these employees are doing to how do we onboard staff, how do we orientate them in a way that they’re actually woven into the tapestry of the organization.

Traci Scherck: into how do we bring our team and our managers into that we have a six month program that takes you through every single step of that.

Traci Scherck: Along with the templates and the tools and the implementation plan to do that and we’ll have that program links in our show notes.

Traci Scherck: So with that fear Thank you so much for joining us today and giving us your expertise in your time and we will also have linked in the show notes.

Traci Scherck: Where to find you and I have to say that you know I have always enjoyed working with you as funny as that sounds you can I learned so much from how you.

Traci Scherck: were able to give me feedback on what I was doing well and what could be improved upon, and I really appreciate that, so thank you so much for joining us and we hope you have a great rest of your day.

Farrah Rifelj: Thanks so much Tracy.