Compliance Partner General The Times We’re L...
The Times We’re Living In Have Made Tough Conversations Even Tougher
By Judy Kneiszel

One of the biggest challenges of employee relations is knowing when and how to have difficult conversations.

Issues like body odor, bad habits (looking at you, guy who clips his nails at his desk), poor performance, and arguments between coworkers are classic “difficult conversation” topics.

Thanks to the pandemic and the rise in the number of people working from home, new but equally difficult issues have surfaced.

For example, maybe a team member’s mask is filthy and needs more frequent washing, but coworkers are afraid to tell her. Or maybe her mask is clean but has offensive words printed on it. Or maybe questionable apparel choices are being seen (or are allowing too much skin to be seen) during video conferences.

Whether a problem is old-school or new age, here are some techniques you can practice to help make an uncomfortable conversation about it slightly less awkward.

Talk privately. If you’re on site, call the employee into your office and close the door. For remote workers, don’t bring up the problem in a team video meeting; call the person back to discuss one-on-one.

Plan your approach. Don’t schedule the meeting or make the call until you have determined:
  • The action or behavior that is creating the problem.
  • How the behavior is affecting the employee, the team, and/or the company.
  • How you will approach the person.
  • The ideal outcome in this situation.
Be prepared for various reactions. Realize that the employee might get angry, begin crying, or leave in the middle of the meeting (or hang up). Consider how you’ll deal with each possible scenario.

Be direct, but kind. State the problem without beating around the bush, but don’t do it in a way that is belittling to the employee. It never hurts to ask, “what can we do to help?”

Remain calm. Avoid the appearance of being agitated or irritated with the employee if he or she becomes upset. A calm demeanor can inspire confidence that you will handle the situation in a professional manner. And it also encourages the employee to calm down.

Listen attentively. Don’t continue to text, read emails, or take calls during the conversation. Maintain eye contact (or look directly at the camera). It’s important that the employee feels like he or she is being respected, acknowledged, and heard. Don’t interrupt or insert your own thoughts into the employee’s explanations.

Get clarity. Sometimes a situation will call for a better understanding of the problem and you may need to ask neutral, open-ended questions to avoid leading the conversation or making judgments.

Determine the next steps. Some problem solving can be done immediately, while other matters will take additional time or require the involvement of others. Whatever the next steps are in resolving the issue, make sure the employee is aware of the process and understands expectations.

Follow up. Regardless of the issue discussed, follow up with the employee after the difficult conversation. Sometimes people have additional thoughts or questions after they have had time to process a discussion. Following up allows you to ensure everyone has a mutual understanding of the issues and expectations for resolution.

Document. Not all difficult conversations with employees involve discipline, but most should still be documented.

If a manager feels like a situation requires only a brief discussion and the event or undesirable behavior is unlikely to occur again, he or she might not think it’s important to document the encounter. However, failure to document could make it difficult to establish a history or pattern of the behavior.

This becomes important if similar actions were to recur, or if there are questions about how the situation was handled. If the discussion involves discipline, suspension, or if termination becomes necessary, the documentation will help support those decisions.

A common mistake managers make

One challenge managers face is determining when and how to address seemingly insignificant rule-breaking or minor employee squabbles.

Generally, managers understand that allegations of discrimination and harassment are serious and need to be addressed immediately, but less significant behavioral issues, such as rudeness or tardiness, are sometimes ignored.

The trouble with ignoring undesirable behavior is that it almost never stops on its own. The poor conduct often causes additional issues because other employees form their own perceptions about the situation and may spread the problem by mimicking the behavior.

Managers should understand that seemingly small infractions, which don’t necessarily require discipline, still need to be nipped in the bud before they can bloom into larger issues.

Sometimes a manager will decide that implementing a new policy or procedure that applies to the whole group is easier than dealing with the individual problem. While it is important to have policies in place to communicate expectations, policymaking should be reserved for issues that impact many employees; not created for a few.

Crafting a new rule is not a substitute for addressing issues with individual employees who are not meeting expectations or adhering to current rules.

Judy Kneiszel is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

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