HUMAN RESOURCES / NOV. 08, 2014
version 3, draft 3

How to Communicate a Workplace Problem With Your Employee

Conflict in the workplace is a fact of doing business. Any time you have two or more people working closely together for extended periods of time, you’re going to encounter arguments, differences of opinion, and even petty bickering. There’s no escaping it.

As the boss, it’s up to you to diffuse these situations when they happen. But handling it incorrectly can quickly make things much worse. There are several field-tested steps when communicating a workplace problem, either between two of your employees, or simply one of them and a shortcoming in their job performance. Being the boss isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

Is It Necessary?

Before you step in, consider whether this particular conflict actually requires it. People argue all the time. Daily, in fact. Most of the time, conflicts between employees are easily resolved by those directly involved. Once tempers and emotions have a chance to cool down, most people quickly revert to a position of reason and fair play. Only get involved when the issue is interfering with the business day, or carries on for several days.

Hear Each Side of the Story

During a conflict, those involved want to feel that their issue, concern, or grievance is being heard. Talk to each person involved and allow them to tell their side of the story, uninterrupted. Avoid the urge to interject, correct, or question until they’re done speaking. Often, simply getting the full story off their chest is enough for most employees to calm down and see a solution to the problem.     

Put Yourself in their Shoes

While listening to them speak, try and empathize with them. It might be hard to remember the frustrations and concerns of someone on the production line when you’ve been in management for years, but that’s exactly what you need to do. How would you feel in the situation? Recognize and acknowledge their concerns/grievance.

Identify the “Real” Issue

Step back and consider whether this problem is actually the manifestation of a bigger or separate one. What is really going on? Is a conflict about break times, for example, really about break times, or is it perceived favoritism by the floor supervisor? You can’t manage and resolve the issue until you know exactly what it is...so step back, consider, and ask.

Remain Unbiased and Objective

This one can be hard. Some employees have a reputation for troublemaking, but that doesn’t mean they’re always at fault. Listen to all sides, consider the situation, and remain unbiased and objective throughout.

Avoid Making It Worse

No one enjoys conflict. Many of us actively avoid it. When you must deal with a workplace problem, don’t make it worse by pointing fingers and making direct accusations whenever possible. Most experts agree that you should avoid “you” and “your” when dealing with the problem (This is YOUR fault, YOU need to stop complaining, YOUR department is falling short…). These words tend to rile people up during confrontation. While it may not always be possible (sometimes, one person is clearly at fault), try and use more general, indirect ways to address and resolve the issue.

Speak Honestly and Clearly

Once the real issue has been identified, it’s time to speak about it honestly and simply. Ask for suggestions on how to resolve it. Discuss the options in clear terms. The decision is ultimately yours as the boss or manager, but involving the employee(s) in the discussion creates a lot of goodwill.

Outline Next Steps and Schedule a Follow-up

As a group, outline the next steps - what will and will not happen - and the individual responsibilities for those involved. Schedule a brief follow-up meeting for a few days down the road to come together and re-evaluate the solution. Is it working? Does everyone feel it’s a fair solution, and that their concerns were fairly addressed? If yes, then consider the conflict resolved. If no, then you may need to re-consider the solution.

Conflict is unavoidable, but how you deal with it is entirely in your control. Be fair, be honest, and work with your employees - not against them - in finding a fair solution. A happy workplace is a productive one.


Image: iStock

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