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Lessons in Leadership

Responding to Employee Concerns

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As a manager, an important part of your job involves addressing the problems and concerns of your staff. The following suggestions may help to make these discussions more pleasant and productive.

1. Give the employee your full attention.
Keep in mind that dealing with employee problems and concerns is not an interruption to your work. As a manager, it is your work. Taking phone calls or continuing to work on your computer clearly sends the message that the employee’s concerns aren’t all that important.

2. Listen to their explanation without interrupting.
Unless the person is just endlessly rambling on, let them finish their story. If they are endlessly rambling, just say, “let me stop you for a minute to be sure that I understand”. Then summarize what you’ve heard so far.

3. If it’s not clear what the problem is, ask “how can I help?”.
Sometimes people just don’t explain things well. If you really have no clue what the issue is, finding out what they expect from you may make it clearer.

4. Show understanding, but not necessarily agreement.
You want to be empathic and convey that you understand the problem, but so far you’ve only heard their version of the situation. Agreeing with them can therefore be hazardous. So don’t say, “That’s awful! We have to do something about it!” Better to say something like, “I can understand why you would be upset about that.”

5. Remain neutral about issues involving other people.
You don’t want to jump to conclusions about the behavior of others until you have actually talked to them or learned more about the situation.

6. Ask questions to get a complete picture.
Sometimes people who are upset or angry fail to provide all the relevant information. They are usually focused on their own point of view to the exclusion of all others. Try to understand the whole situation before deciding what to do next.

7. Explain what you are going to do. Then do it.
The end of a conversation about an employee concern should be a clear agreement on what happens next. There may be things that you want the employee to do, such as provide more information or talk directly with a colleague. For your part, you should be explicitly clear about (a) whether you can do anything about the situation and (b) if so, what your next steps will be.

8. Get permission to involve other employees.
If the employee’s complaint is about a colleague, most of the time that other person has to become part of the conversation in order to solve the problem. But don’t assume that the complaining employee has thought this through. Unless it’s a legal issue (see below), you may need to help the employee realize that they have a choice of either (a) involving the other party or (b) living with the situation.

9. Take legal issues to the appropriate people. Immediately!
If the employee mentions sexual harassment, discrimination, threats of personal harm, financial mismanagement, or other legal issues, you must run, not walk, to your legal or HR department. Delays could create serious problems. Do not try to investigate these issues yourself.

10. Set a time for the employee to get back to you.
The employee is probably more concerned about this issue than you are, so just to insure that you don’t let it slip your mind or delay taking action, give the employee a specific time to follow up with you.

11. Keep information confidential.
Some employee problems are just so odd or funny or interesting that you may be tempted to turn them into amusing anecdotes to tell your co-workers. Don’t do this. People really resent having their personal issues shared with others.

12. Resolve the issue. Or clearly explain why you cannot.
Don’t leave employees wondering when their problem will be resolved or what will be done about it. If you can’t do anything about the situation, explain why. Most people understand that managers have limited power.

13. If necessary, arrange a time to follow up.
If it’s a situation that will take awhile to improve (like an interpersonal problem with a co-worker), determine when you will touch base with the employee to see how things are progressing.

14. Don’t reward employees for complaining.
Addressing valid concerns is important, but some people complain endlessly about everything. After awhile, these employees will just suck up all your energy, so you don’t want to inadvertently encourage them! Attention can be a powerful reward, so if you have a chronic complainer, be sure that you don’t reinforce this behavior by listening sympathetically to lengthy recitations of complaints.

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