HOW TO Handle A Difficult Employee Situation

We’ve all had challenging situations with employees, some that have gone well and others that have provided great learning opportunities. In a Conversational Marketing™ firm with around 225 employees, I have seen my fair share of these instances, and learned a bit about how the handle them. Here are some highlights to keep in mind the next time you have a challenging employee situation.

1.) Listen first. Many times a disgruntled employee is that way because their opinion simply has not been heard. Maybe they are challenging a specific policy or a disciplinary action (and maybe they should) and want to be sure their side of the case is heard. Give them this opportunity. It almost always diffuses the situation.

Keys: Say things like, “Help me understand why you’re so upset”, or “What is it that’s bothering you?”

2.) Ask for understanding. Once someone has vented, attempt to summarize their concern back to them in a simplified way. “So you’re upset because you were disciplined according to the attendance policy, and you disagree that you violated it? Is that correct?”

Keys: The challenge in this phase is not to be placating or condescending. It is critical to communicate your understanding back with real empathy. If you aren’t truly trying to understand their concern, it will be apparent to them.

In most cases, I have found that disgruntled employees are powered by an underlying issue that comes out in the Listening phase of the exchange. They are having trouble with a relationship outside of work, financial challenges, etc. I don’t typically include that as part of the summary, but take special notice of it as it may influence the tone of your response.

3.) Educate. Help them understand the deeper reasons why that policy/procedure/process/measurement exists. It is often difficult to see situations through other people’s eyes, or consider all sides of any individual situation. As a manager, your role is to help educate why decisions are made at a higher level and, ideally, why they benefit the employee.

For example: “I understand as one individual person it doesn’t feel like your absence makes a big difference, but in the relationship with our client, we are making commitments about the amount of customers we will service, and the exact days/times in which we will do it. The purpose of the attendance policy is to ensure we provide great service to our clients, and make sure our employees’ jobs stay secure.”

Education is NOT saying, “Well, that’s the policy.” As a front-line employee this may be one of the most degrading management phrases of all time. It reminds us of our childhood, and our parents saying “Because I said so.” Every company has bad policies. Look at an employee’s complaint as an excellent opportunity to reevaluate them.

4.) Define next steps, specifically and with a time frame attached. Many times this process draws out new actions on both sides of the conversation. There is additional research to do, or a claim to be looked into. Clarify these, in writing, and set a day and time to reconvene, ideally less than a week later. If there is any risk of missing that meeting, notify the employee in advance. By documenting the next steps (and keeping them) you are reestablishing the trust that may have been lost when the discussion arose. By setting a specific time frame, you are increasing the likeliness that the challenging situation will stay calm until you are able to resolve it.