Those Difficult Conversations

HR processes to protect people from unscrupulous companies. They are perhaps less good at protecting good companies from unscrupulous employees, reflecting the imbalance of power.

I recently heard of a jaw-dropping case of abuse by an employee at a small company. By small I mean fewer than 5 people on the pay roll and a number of volunteers. They manage (among other things) a venue.

A woman, lets call her Angie (because that was not her name), was hired as office manager, her duties included being at the venue every weekday morning from 9 – 1pm, taking calls, answering emails, handling invoices, organising delivery of supplies. Pretty easy number.

For a long time the company director noticed that Angie was not fulfilling her duties. She didn’t seem to be as available as expected during her work hours, work didn’t seem to be done in the time allotted. The director started to suspect that Anglie wasn’t as honest and reliable as she portrayed, but had no evidence to back this up.

So the company director started to manage the performance, she sat down with Angie and in a long and difficult conversation went through all the things expected of Angie during the week; including very specific expectations on availability during the hours she was hired for. Perfect response; as a manager you need to set clear goals together, explain the improvement you need to see, and set a timeline for that improvement to happen. It’s effective feedback for the employee – Angie, and if things do not improve you have taken the first step in a long HR process to address Angie’s contract.

Well it turns out that the reason Angie was not performing her duties is that she has a business of her own. No problem with that in principle but Angie was using work time and work resources to run this business.

This all came to light when the company director turned up for an unannounced visit at the venue and found that Angie was busy with two clients for her own business, and was ignoring the phones and two potential clients who had visited the venue.

Which set the stage for difficult conversation #2; addressing flagrant misconduct.

The director calmly stated that Angie had acted in breach of her contract, and they would now have to address that breach.

Angie became defensive saying “you shouldn’t have come to the office unannounced.”

Some people need a reality check.

So how can you handle such difficult discussions when they are sprung on you?

  • stay calm
  • focus on facts – the agreements made and the actual breach
  • use the “stuck record” technique, repeating your point clearly
  • do not react to any remarks from the employee that might be designed to provoke
  • do not rush to a decision, use language such as “address the breach of contract” to give yourself time to decide on a fair action and involve HR or other parties as needed

If the case is so serious that you think firing is the next step here’s a great step by step guide from Guy Kawasaki, I particularly like his last step.

In this case Angie lost her temper and threatened to resign, to which the director very cleverly responded “you have that choice”, and accepted a written resignation the following day.

image A Difficult Conversation /Timothy Valentine/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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About Louise McGregor

I write about digital strategy, the changing online world, communication challenges and real life leadership. I work at the intersection of communications, technology and business and part of my job is to stimulate the adoption of new technologies in a way that makes business sense.
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