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By Mark Gorkin, LICSW

 Sea of Tranquility 

Keep a star hire from sending your spa staff into orbit.

YOU RECENTLY HIRED MARY, A SEASONED ESTHETICIAN who's highly accomplished. The problem is, some of the other therapists on staff find her arrogant and have complained that she talks down to them. If Mary is more capable and knowledgeable than her peers, is this just a matter of some fleeting jealousy that will eventually settle down? And if it doesn't, how can a new employee adjust when others begin to exclude and ignore her? As a supervisor or manager it's up to you to improve teamwork and the overall interpersonal climate. But how?

First, you need to assess the nature of the problem. Do you have a knowledgeable, confident and assertive woman inadvertently setting off others' insecurity "hot buttons"? Or, do you have a "stress carrier," someone who spreads stress much like the common cold, by the nature of his or her dysfunctional interaction with others? The answer may very well be a bit of both.

Think of your recent hire as the brilliant basketball star who's also emotionally immature and behaviorally dysfunctional. You know that too many second chances for this star could take a toll on everyone. If your spa's shooting star is consistently antagonizing others with off‑putting behavior or words, she could seriously injure team morale before burning herself out. In addition, the resulting stress on staff members could disrupt your spa's carefully cultivated atmosphere of tranquility.

If you haven't already done so, informally document any specific behaviors of concern that others bring to your attention and any disruptive behaviors you observe. How does Mary speak to and interact with others? Also note any clear patterns of ostracism or isolation from the staff. If the entire team goes out to lunch, is Mary invited? Do other therapists gossip about her in the spa?

If you observe two worrisome incidents within a relatively short time, the new esthetician deserves your closer scrutiny. To use a natural disaster analogy, two problematic events are equivalent to a tornado watch -‑ that is, conditions are ripe for the formation of a serious weather system (or for disruptive behavior or interactions). To help prevent the onset of a storm, begin with an informal discussion. Ask Mary how things are going. Emphasize that any questions she may have about her new workplace are welcome.

Now, three problematic events equal a tornado warning -‑ that is, you know there will be touchdown, you just don't know the precise location and the extent of the damage. If you observe truly problematic behavior, don't simply take cover. Take more definitive steps to solve the problem.

1. Formal One‑On‑One
Schedule a private meeting with Mary. Share the feedback you're hearing from other therapists. At this point, maintain their confidentiality. Ask Mary for her perception of the situation. She may well respond that others are jealous of her skills and abilities. Empathize if she's feeling excluded or ostracized; ask for specific instances. While you might solicit suggestions for improving the atmosphere, don't push hard for solutions at this point. Let her know of your intention to address these matters by speaking individually with the other spa team members.

2. Individual Meetings
Meet with other spa staff members and give them a chance to express their grievances individually. Ask each if she's aware of attempts to exclude Mary. Assessing the degree of denial and defensiveness or insight and openness among Mary's fellow therapists is vital for subsequent successful intervention. The latter group of individuals can become your overt or unspoken ally in trying to change a possibly antagonistic spa work culture.

3. Selective Recruiting
Approach a few of the staff members who seemed open in individual meetings. Enlist two or three who wilt agree to represent spa therapists in a problem‑solving meeting with you and the new esthetician.

Select colleagues who can be objective enough to acknowledge that both the spa team members and Mary have reason to be frustrated, and set a time to get the two sides together.

If you discover that a spa staff member truly has entrenched hostility toward Mary, you'll likely need to speak to this person privately and perhaps even mediate a joint meeting between the antagonists, if Mary feels similarly. Clearly, this angry individual shouldn't be one of your spa's group representatives. 

4. Mediation Meeting
Meet with Mary and the recruited spa staff to air issues and propose action steps. These should include ways to help Mary fit into the spa work atmosphere and to improve team communication and cooperation. The goal is to reduce the new esthetician’s provocative actions while validating her strengths.

In addition, explore whether any spa therapists are uncomfortable with Mary's strengths or are feeling undue pressure to improve their performance.

Assure Mary that your goal isn't to quash her individuality, but to design a better working fit with the team, which will now meet as a whole.

5. Team Meeting
Your spa team as a whole now has a chance to respond briefly to the initial concerns; this should not become a bash session. The problem‑solving steps proposed should be the primary focus. The goals are:

 ·          Ventilation among everyone regarding both the issues of condescension and exclusion.

 ·          Acknowledgment of the stress that can be caused by any change -‑ be it good or bad -‑ in your spa.

 ·          Further refinement (if needed) of the proposed action steps.

 ·          Group acceptance of those steps.

 When staff members see that anger can be expressed appropriately and safely -‑ that is, when no one, feels emo­tionally attacked or belittled and no one experiences retaliation -‑ a greater sense of group trust can begin to emerge among spa staff members. Your follow‑ups with spa staff members will indicate if this is happening. 

6. Follow‑Up Meetings and Training
Follow up with Mary within a couple of days to see how she weathered the team meeting. Plan to meet with spa staff weekly for the next month to monitor the social atmosphere and progress in improved communication and cooperation along with effective integration. You might also consider communication and conflict‑resolution training as part of ongoing team building.

If any of these steps sounds daunting or if the process breaks down (for example, if the new esthetician – or any staff member -‑ refuses to participate in this intervention), meet again with the recalcitrant individual. Firmly state your intention to formally document unprofessional behavior that negatively impacts either work productivity or productive team relationships. This step also should apply to any spa staff member engaging in exclusionary behavior. 

You may also want to avail yourself of a coach (if so, engage this person in these steps from the beginning). If your organization has the resources, call in an Employee Assistance Program counselor to help guide the process. If necessary, consider hiring an outside conflict mediator,

 Respectful working relationships are vital to building a cooperative, productive spa team. If you want to help an employee like Mary enjoy cordial work interactions as part of a task‑focused, inclusive spa team, steps like these can become an investment in your staffs morale and cohesiveness, as well as in retaining a potentially valuable therapist.

 Mark Gorkin LICSW, "The Stress Doc," is a psychotherapist and author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression. He can be reached at 301/496‑0865 or through www.stressdoc.com.