Train Supervisors for Success

Jeff Shiver

One of the things that I enjoy doing in my maintenance leadership and supervision courses is to provoke the group with situational scenarios and ask them how they would respond. These scenarios are based on real-life experiences that typical organizations fail to prepare supervisors to handle. Truthfully, in many cases, little if any training is given to supervisors, especially those transitioning from hourly roles to leadership and supervision positions.

With that said, I would like to share a true scenario to help illustrate my point. So, here it goes …

You are the only supervisor on duty at the site (no other managers are here), and are actually filling in for the normal supervisor, who took vacation. The site is very large, employing nearly 1,000 people. It happens that only one manufacturing line is running across the weekend, so only about 40 people are present on Sunday’s day shift. You happen to be in your office near the plant floor doing one of many administrative tasks that burden shift supervision. One of the operators, Robert, runs up to you and gives you a torn sheet of paper that he found at Michael’s work area when he noticed Michael walked away and disappeared.

The torn yellow note reads:

“I am tired of taking this medicine. This life is not worth living anymore when you have to take medicine to be normal. I just want to be like everyone else and be normal. I am going to kill myself. Do not let anyone try to stop me or I will take them out with me.”

Through the grapevine, you know Michael is bipolar and has had issues taking his medicine before. Needless to say, the previous issues were never to this extent. Robert says he saw Michael heading toward the equipment mezzanine area, which has a number of larger pieces of equipment (plenty of places to hide). Michael carries a 4-inch folding knife in his pocket like most of the other operators in that production area.

There are two security workers onsite – one patrolling the exterior areas of the site property, the other functions as a receptionist, answering calls and handling people coming through the front door. Like most organizations, the security is handled by a contract security firm that hires people with no real security experience, provides little training and pays slightly above minimum wage. No real help there for your situation.

Before you can contemplate your options on how to respond, you find out that two other operators (male and female co-workers of Michael) have left their work areas to locate and talk with Michael, as they are concerned for his well-being. At this point, you really don’t know where any of the three people are.

As the supervisor, what are you going to do?

This scenario poses some interesting issues, those of balancing the needs of the organization and those of the individual. The organization has an obligation to protect both the medical privacy and employment of the individual as well as the safety of the people who are exposed to that individual. As I’m not a lawyer, I’ll leave those aspects to more competent individuals. However, I will say that in many cases neither the human resources department nor the medical group has prior knowledge. If they do, they tend to look the other way until something occurs that forces their hand.

At any rate, the first thing is to reach out for professional help. Recognize that this is way beyond what many supervisors are trained for. With the safety of all involved, having the security guard contact 911 is the right first step. At this point, you don’t know much yourself other than receiving the suicide note, so having someone else make that call is probably OK. It actually frees you up to make a call to your immediate manager or the human resources manager. If you have ever been through crisis-management training, you know that things can go downhill very quickly, so reaching up for management help is the right approach.

Needless to say, before you head out from the office, make sure you have communication tools (i.e., a cell phone and a radio). Security generally has cameras at the front reception area monitoring the exits and exterior, so they can advise if Michael is seen leaving the building. They also can direct the emergency responders to the nearest entrance once Michael is located.

Whether to evacuate the plant becomes a judgment call. It happens that Michael did seek out the equipment mezzanine and was surrounded by the two operators. At this point, he was isolated except for the two operators. As I mentioned, things can go downhill very quickly, and the best-laid plans can go awry. About the time they were located, and before the emergency response arrived, they headed out of the equipment room, as Michael wanted to take a smoke. They take a path that isolates them even more in a smaller room near an exterior door away from the production areas. Seeing the opportunity, the supervisor notifies security of the location to relay to the responders. The supervisor catches up with the trio near that exterior door and engages them in conversation. As the conversation begins, the police enter through the door with paramedics waiting outside.

Remember that I mentioned that things tend to happen quickly. In trying to bring the police up to speed quickly and before Michael can be identified, the trio turns 90 degrees and exits back into the plant, headed to the break room for that smoke. At that point, the police are on the scene and you as the supervisor have to turn the situation over to them. You must avoid the temptation to try to intervene on behalf of Michael and get out of the way.

Once the situation is under control, you will need to close up the loose ends by making the calls to the manager(s) again, letting them know of the resolution. At the same time, you will need to address the needs and concerns of those operators who were involved in the situation. Realize, too, that you are somewhat limited in what you can say due to medical privacy issues and out of respect for Michael. Someone, ideally from human resources, will need to reach out to Michael’s family to let them know of the situation and where he has been taken.

At some point, you will need to write up an incident report and do an after-action review to determine if the organization can learn from the event and if procedures could be improved. Human resources will need to determine if or when Michael can return to work and under what conditions. Needless to say, they will most likely be consulting the lawyers to validate any decisions or actions. While the two operators had the best of intentions, human resources should help them understand the risks they exposed themselves to and offer any assistance necessary with respect to counseling if required.

Supervisors have many challenges. Depending on the day and situation, you may be asked to be a chaplain, a diplomat, a counselor, a psychologist, a referee, a judge and occasionally (but hopefully not for long) a babysitter. I hope this scenario provoked you to give consideration to how you may face a similar situation.

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About the Author

As a managing principal for People and Processes, Jeff Shiver helps organizations implement best practices for maintenance and operations. Prior ...