Employee Relations Basics: Lessons Learned in Dance/USA’s Institute for Leadership Training

By Karyn Collins

It sounds simple on paper: When it comes to employee relations, the most important thing to remember is that you’re dealing with, well, human beings. Simple, right? But, as Paul Jan Zdunek, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association, delineated in a one-hour webinar last month to mentees in Dance/USA’s Institute for Leadership Training (DILT), dealing with human beings means dealing with human emotions. And when emotions enter the equation, even the simplest situation, no matter how seemingly clear cut, can be anything but easy.

“It really is about managing human beings so …  at the heart of human resources is the human connection,” Zdunek said. And, Zdunek added, failure to manage employees properly can not only cost an organization precious time and energy, but significant amounts of money, especially if a disgruntled employee files a lawsuit against an organization.

Zdunek, an expert in crisis management, came to Pasadena in 2008 after that organization found itself more than $3 million in debt. Before that the former conductor spearheaded the turnaround of the Modesto (CA) Symphony Orchestra Association.

In outlining human resource department strategies for the DILT mentees, Zdunek pointed out that some decisions may be dictated to some degree by state, federal and even international laws or regulations, which can vary depending on where an organization is based. But, he added, in any discussion about dealing with human resources issues, it was important to remember that human resource work actually contains three key components:

  • Personal leadership and creating culture
  • Organizational focus and team selection
  • Risk management and policies.

The one constant, regardless of an organization’s size, location or particular arts discipline, was the human element, he said. Referring to a quote from the business education guru Dale Carnegie, Zdunek said,  “We’re dealing with creatures of emotion.”

With the importance of the human component serving as a consistent theme at every level of an organization’s human resources actions, Zdunek said establishing and maintaining a correct and consistent tone was critical. And it’s especially important that the tone is established from the top levels of an organization, including the board chair and supervisors at every level of an organization, he said.

“You have to holistically approach your organization. You can’t just fix a piece of it,” he said. Fixing an organization’s culture is not easy and employees will, most likely, be resistant to change, he warned. Said Zdunek, “The bottom line is no one likes change.” But he urged the DILT mentees to begin making changes immediately to establish the right tone and approach in their organizations.

“If you’re new into your workplace, go ahead and start changing the culture right away,” he said. This step is the most difficult and will take the longest to achieve. But, he said, delaying would only make things more difficult to change later on.

Zdunek suggested that mentees read the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, by Patrick Lencioni, which outlines the five biggest issues that can derail a team:

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results

He also recommended mentees read Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t by Jim Collins [no relation to the author of this article]. Among other things, Collins like Lencioni, talks about the dangers of avoiding difficult issues. The Collins book, he said, also preaches the need for discipline in setting and maintaining policies. Said Zdunek, “If you work from a culture of discipline then all the things I hear about — the emotional issues, the petty issues — really take care of themselves.”

Collins also talks about the steps toward achieving the highest level of leadership. Characteristics of the top level or Level 5 Leaders are someone who:

  • Demonstrates personal humility and professional will
  • Acts for the good of the company not him or herself
  • Sets up successors for greater success
  • Is fanatically driven to produce sustained results
  • Shows a workmanlike diligence (plow horse versus a show horse)
  • Looks out the window with success; Looks in the mirror with failure
  • Attributes much of their success to luck versus personal greatness

Zdunek also shared his “Six Mantras for Arts Organizations,” adopted over the years from his personal experience as well as from books on managing people. They are:

  • The No Asshole Rule (adopted from the book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton)
  • No Drama
  • Butts in Seats
  • Dollars in the Door
  • Return on Investment
  • Entrepreneurial Spirit

Neglecting one of these mantras can slow down and in some cases completely derail a human resource manager’s efforts, especially if situations are allowed to spiral out of control unchecked, he said. One of those oft-neglected mantras, he said, was No Drama.

“Everybody probably has a lot of drama in their operations and if you have this rule, which is — ‘No drama,’ we’re just going to talk about the facts, talk about the organization — it’s amazing how you can deflate so many situations,” he said. Zdunek added that another part of the No Drama mantra was to get rid of those in the organization who bring drama into the workplace, when possible.

Clear, consistent and constant communication is also part of the key in adapting the No Drama mantra, he said. “Really check in every day with the people you’re working with. Address issues before they come up,” he said. Avoidance or delaying discussions allows small issues to escalate, creating more problems, he said.

Zdunek said performance evaluations are often an example of this problem. Instead of talking about issues every day or giving employees a clear definition of daily expectations, managers typically avoid or don’t take the necessary time to have these discussions. And, Zdunek added, it’s also critical that managers document all communications so it’s clear who said what and when.

Having a clearly defined list of expectations and clearly and regularly discussing those expectations also helps ensure that there are no surprises in an evaluation. If an issue does arise, Zdunek said it’s important for a manager to have a third party present to avoid “he said, she said” situations down the road.

Zdunek also strongly recommended that organizations include a legal expert with experience in employment issues as part of the board of directors. He pointed out that some law firms also offered pro bono services in this area.

When it comes to managing risk, Zdunek said he followed three basic guidelines:

  • Follow the Golden Rule. Think how you would like to be managed and manage that way.
  • Strive to be fair and equitable. You can’t have two sets of rules for employees or do favors for one employee and not for another.
  • Remember that whatever you say or do may be used against you in a court of law. Say what you mean to say and always assume that, especially in this day and age of easy access to recording devices, that it’s possible you’re being recorded.

Said Zdunek: “A lot of decisions in the workplace are based on emotion. Make sure all those decisions are based on policies and procedures.”

The difference, he added, could literally determine if your organization is able to survive.

Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for 28 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, Life and Beauty Weekly Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Bloomfield College in N.J. and a faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, N.J. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.


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