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Flame retardant for your career

Putting out fires at work

Only you can prevent career fires

Ann Humphries

(CNN) -- Putting out fires at work proved to be a hot topic for ETICON'S Ann Humphries.

CNN: By the time we'd put the question to her -- and of course had to dash away immediately to tend to something that had just blown up in our faces -- she was on a slow burn, herself, warming right up to her subject.

Ann Humphries: Your arsonists are the worst, you know. They're your crisis people. Setting fires deliberately.

But the real key to handling those flare-ups at work is prevention. It takes somebody smart enough to anticipate the problem. Avoid it. Get ahead of it.

Not long before the Fourth of July, we were on a family vacation, getting ready to get onto a boat to cross to an island. Huge line, the place was swarming -- and there was only one security guard. Hello? Didn't anybody think "holiday crowds" in advance? Consider hiring a little extra staff? Needless to say, it was chaos.

graphic How much time do you spend trying to put out fires at work?

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That's a combustible situation. A fire waiting to happen. Easily prevented.

In some businesses -- certainly in the consulting work my company does -- I've found that there's such a thing as the overly panic-stricken client. You may have to consider letting go of such a client because there's such a high level of anxiety involved, fire after fire, crisis after crisis. You simply may not be able to satisfy a customer like this.

Panic -- a mad rush over deadlines, a hundred changes in a project that went through approval three times already (sound familiar?), constant calls at night, in the wee hours, on the weekends, endless handholding -- this is all panic that sucks up a lot of the energy you could be using to solve the problem, or 10 problems.

A better way? Caterers come to mind, and medical practitioners. It's called contingency planning. Nobody's running around in the catering tent screaming, "Why don't we have any toothpicks?" In medical work, you back up the procedure with contingency plans. You sort out what could go wrong before it goes wrong -- to preserve life.

But elsewhere in society, we tend to think we can "wing it." You've heard me talk about this before. We love to think no preparation is needed for anything. What happens? -- havoc happens. And guess what: You pay a premium to fix it, too, because things are falling apart at the last minute.

For fires at work, those things you're so used to putting out all the time, think firewalls. Stop the spread. Condos and computers have firewalls. Put them into place in your organization. You might even want to assign one person in your operation the job of contingency planning, thinking ahead: your fire extinguisher.

In the process of choosing somebody to be your firefighter, think about what sets your operation up for these incidents. Powerlessness. The feeling of powerlessness on the part of your people can have a lot to do with an endless series of fires that have to be put out. Maybe your staffers aren't being empowered -- don't feel trusted -- to get ahead of situations before they catch.

Listen for the "we're short on" litany -- short on money, short on equipment, short on authority, short on people. Are your tools adequate? Your leadership structure? Your staffing levels? You may just have to bite the bullet if not, because these shortages throw off sparks, and keep throwing them off.

Hey, you in the big red truck. Yes, you. Put down that fire hose for a minute and let us know what issues of business etiquette you'd like to see addressed in Corporate Class. Kindly click here for our handy, flameproof submission form.

Shallow training, or a real lack of training, can be an incendiary problem. People become impatient when they don't know how to do things well. They sense it, they know it, they're frustrated about it.

Are you hearing the stresses? If you're on a strained staff, is your management listening? People get overly tired, their resources are too low. They overreact. Fire. Is it because management didn't react to what was being said?

Use fire drills. Walk through the possibilities. Think ahead. Plan things, anticipate. Look for what's ready to be a problem, get combustible stuff out of the way. Remember that once you're too near the flames, your judgment is going to be impaired. Plan for emergencies, fall-throughs, nasty surprises. Have Plan B ready.

And when you nevertheless find a fire in your workplace, whether you're management or staff, be as calm as you can in putting it out. Try not to panic everybody else. Don't send your cohorts around the twist.

Get to the problem while it's still little. Get to it fast, quietly, take care of it and get on with business. And the best way to do that is to be ready for it. Think ahead.

To paraphrase Smoky Bear, only you can prevent career fires.

Next week: Tipping on business occasions.

South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges has named Ann Humphries, founder and president of ETICON Inc., one of seven South Carolina Women of Achievement. Humphries, who's based in Columbia, is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management. Her clients have included several Fortune 500 companies. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Money, and on CNN, CBS and Lifetime TV. You can contact her at



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