101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees

A Manager's Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges

 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees

Author: Paul Falcone
Pub Date: April 2009
Print Edition: $18.95
Print ISBN: 9780814413487
Page Count: 320
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814413494

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Introduction: The Rules of Engagement

To make employee turnarounds and epiphanies successful, there are a

few key rules of communication to follow: First, remember that it’s not

what you say but how you say it that counts. That may sound like an old

saying that your grandparents taught you, but in the world of work, people

tend to respond in kind: If you demonstrate respect and compassion,

you’re likely to receive a similar response, even when dealing with the

most uncomfortable and confrontational workplace situations.

Second, your greatest asset when dealing with others is guilt, not

anger. Anger is an external response: When people are mad at another

person, they look outward to voice their frustration. Guilt, on the other

hand, is internal: When people feel guilty, they look inward and tend to

assume responsibility for the problem at hand. That’s the Golden Rule of

Workplace Leadership: Allow people to assume responsibility for their

actions, and you’ll ‘‘pierce their heart’’ and get them to want to change

things for themselves. Try to force them to do something by making them

mad or by challenging or embarrassing them, and they’ll resist the change

that’s being forced on them. We’ll discuss strategies for invoking guilt

rather than anger responses throughout the book, and psst . . . this works

just as effectively in your personal life as well!

Third, remember that whatever you want for yourself, give to another.

So many times people demand respect, open communication, and other

forms of social acceptance without realizing that they don’t give those

things to others. At a time when many demographers and sociologists are

pointing to major shortages in the labor market because of the upcoming

retirement of the baby boom generation, retention is vital. Yet people

tend to join companies and leave managers: They initially see the value

of the company, its reputation, and perception as a great place to work—

only to flee from a manager whom they no longer trust or respect.

They also say that the difference between an active and a passive job

seeker is one bad day in the office. When that proverbial straw breaks,

sometimes over seemingly minor issues, the job change mechanism kicks

into gear, and at best you’ll have a worker who has become mentally

unemployed. Then you’re faced with the ‘‘employees who quit and leave’’

versus the ‘‘employees who quit and stay’’ syndrome, and it’s only a matter

of time until something blows up.

Folks, life is too short! And if your company is anything like the typical

company in corporate America, there’s usually enough work to sink a battleship.

You certainly don’t need all the added angst and pressure that

comes from walking on eggshells around people who you really don’t get

along with. That’s simply too much for most people to bear, and yes,

there’s a better way to manage your career as well as your subordinates.

Which leads us to the fourth rule of thumb: Honesty is the best policy.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Oh please, that’s very easily said

from the HR ivory tower, but I’ve got to work side by side with these

people every day, so please spare me the hackneyed adages! Being open

and honest is particularly difficult when you’re dealing with certain kinds

of employees, and the confrontation just isn’t worth it.’’

In reality, honesty has to be the basis of everything you do as a leader.

Confrontation is tough for all of us. Just remember that differences in

opinion are perfectly acceptable; however, confrontation in the negative

sense is optional. Speaking with others in a respectful and thoughtful

tone, regardless of the content of your message, will allow them to assume

responsibility for their actions or, in the case of termination, get on with

their lives. Try these on for size:

>> Janet, I appreciate all of your hard work and effort over the past three

months, but we’re at the end of your probation period, and I’m sorry to

say that this just isn’t working for us. I know how hard you’ve tried to

improve in light of the discussions we’ve had, and I’d guess that you probably

feel that it’s not a ‘‘love connection’’ on your end either, but I don’t

believe this was a good match of your strengths to our needs, and I’m

afraid we’ll have to separate your employment today. We’ll label this as a

‘‘probationary termination’’ in our records, and you’ll still be eligible for

rehire with the company if some other opportunity surfaces in the future.

In addition, we won’t contest your ability to get unemployment insurance.

>> Sam, through absolutely no fault of your own, our company is going

through a restructuring, and we’re going to have to eliminate a number of

positions. Yours is unfortunately one of them, and I’m so sorry. I wish it

could be different, and we’ll do whatever we can to help you through this

unexpected transition in your career, but please understand that these

sorts of things do happen in people’s careers, and I’m afraid that your

position is impacted as part of a larger restructuring. We’ll discuss a number

of ways that we’d like to help you, but before we go much further with

this discussion, I just want to check and make sure you’re okay. . . .

No, these examples aren’t exactly fun messages to deliver, but they’re

compassionate and understanding. You’ll more than likely find that people

are willing to meet you halfway and become part of the solution any

time you present issues that affect them personally—even terminations

and layoffs—with kindness and concern.

In the first example, the probationary employee being terminated for

cause will certainly feel remorseful—‘‘I didn’t want to lose this job and

I’ve tried so hard. I’m sorry if I disappointed you, and truth be told, I’ve

disappointed myself’’—but probably not litigious. Remorse and regret

stem from guilt: ‘‘I was part of the problem and couldn’t increase my

performance to a level that was acceptable to the company.’’ And guilt

always looks internally for shared responsibility and accountability.

In the second example, the layoff was no one’s fault. These things

simply happen, and the supervisor was very caring and willing to say, ‘‘I’m

so sorry.’’ Those three words are critical and so underused! It costs nothing

to say I’m sorry, as it costs nothing to say thank you, but few supervisors

make consistent use of those magic words. When employees sue companies

for wrongful termination, one of the first things they typically complain

of is, ‘‘I can’t believe after all I had done for that company, they

threw me out and never even said they were sorry!’’ That need to hear I’m

sorry is a universally human trait, so don’t be shy about using those very

words. It’s fair, humane, and fills a very important need in others’ lives.

In fact, a lawsuit is typically a tool of workplace revenge. When employees

feel like they were stripped of their dignity, humiliated, or disrespected

at the time when they were most vulnerable, they often feel a

need to get back at the company. We all know about incidents of workplace

violence and lawsuits that plague the workplace, but imagine how

much easier it would be to treat people fairly and respectfully at the time

of their greatest vulnerability and allow them to get on with their lives.

Just think how you’d like to be treated under those same circumstances,

and use yourself as a guide for handling the situation.

That being said, don’t manage by fear of a lawsuit, and don’t be afraid

of being sued because that’s simply the cost of doing business from time

to time in corporate America. You should be concerned, however, that

you are being sued on your terms—not theirs. And that means that you

should always be prepared to defend a termination or other adverse action

by showing that you were a reasonable and responsible employer

and that you accorded employees with workplace due process. In other

words, the record should reflect that you listened to the employee’s side

of the story, investigated the situation thoroughly and objectively, and

reached a reasonable and timely conclusion before taking action. That

may sound simple, but it can be difficult to avoid acting in the heat of

the moment when something goes wrong in the office or on the shop


Finally, the fifth and most important rule in this book is actually a

word: perception. Perception is never right or wrong—it just is. And

whenever you use the word perception, you’re not accusing anyone of

anything or proclaiming to be stating facts. Instead, you’re simply relaying

how you’re seeing things from your perspective or what you’re hearing

from others.

Let’s look at the most common problem with people management in

corporate America today: grade inflation during performance reviews.

Performance reviews are often mandatory in many companies and

needed to justify an employee’s annual merit increase. But because many

supervisors don’t keep records of their employees’ performance throughout

the year or meet with their staff members on a quarterly or interim

basis, they have little information on which to justify the grades they give.

They of course want to avoid upsetting the employee, whom they have to

deal with for the entire upcoming year, so rather than providing an honest

grade showing that the person doesn’t meet company expectations,

they inflate the grade to show that the person is performing at an acceptable—

albeit not stellar—level.

Well, this scenario goes on for several years, and low and behold, the

company suddenly finds itself in dire straights and decides it must lay off

a certain percentage of its workforce. The manager, of course, wants to

lay off the marginal performer (i.e., the one who’s been ‘‘skating by’’ in a

quasi-job that produces few results). However, not realizing that the

paper record created over the past few years shows that this individual

has consistently met expectations, the supervisor is shocked to find that

he or she can’t simply lay off the true substandard performer.

Why not? Because more often than not, that particular employee is

the longest tenured, the oldest, or otherwise the most protected person

in the group. The fact that you gave this person an overall performance

review score of 3—meeting expectations—while everyone else on the

team got a 4 or a 5—exceeding expectations—means little in the grand

scheme of things. That’s because the employee ‘‘heard’’ that she met company

expectations for the entire year with an overall acceptable score.

Whether she knew that her 3 was the lowest score in the group isn’t

really at issue because overall performance review scores are absolute, not

relative. In other words, if her overall score was a 3, then it doesn’t matter

if that was the lowest score in the group: A score of 3 still ‘‘meets’’ company

expectations, and that’s the only message that really counts in terms

of the record your company has created.

At that point, human resources or your outside legal counsel becomes

a barrier that’s standing in your way of getting done what you want and

need done, and then you’re at odds with your own internal support team.

It’s a lose-lose situation because you weren’t honest and upfront in your

conversations with this subordinate all along, and now you’re kicking

yourself (and anyone else in your path) for not allowing you to get your

way. The end result? You have to lay off someone less tenured on your

team (who happens to be your star performer) and now begin the progressive

discipline process with the laggard employee from scratch—even

though she should have been disciplined a long time back.

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