Many HR discussions that take place do so where the stakes are high, and at the same time they take place when privacy is an important concern. The stakes are usually high for the employee involved, and less so for the HR practitioner and the privacy concerns are also more for the employee concerned and less for the HR practitioner.
An example: Employee A is underperforming and Manager B and HR Practitioner C need to address it. The real issue here is between A and B, and C is merely facilitating an outcome that is fair and equitable. The same can be in a redundancy situation where HR Practitioner C is dealing with many affected employees on behalf of the organisation.
These situations are instinctively not simple or “feel-good” environments. They are fraught with challenges and we HR practitioners are also human. Difficult situations are also hard for us, and except for the sociopathic few, we are prone to seeking out a way for the difficult process to feel good for us firstly, and the employee second. Nobody wants to watch an employee writhe in discomfort or embarrassment, or break down in fear or tears. It feels voyeuristic and cruel. It is an entirely natural tendency, but this can be a danger both for us and for the organisation. The real danger is when we don’t realise this and we don’t deliberately compensate for it.
How do we try and make lives better for ourselves and others in a way that is risky? Some ideas:
- We “agree with” when we should merely “empathise with”
- To reduce harshness, we decrease the level of formality when we should maintain formality
- We generalise instead of being specific
- We tell half-truths or avoid the stark realities
There is a danger in doing these entirely understandable things, that we set ourselves or the organisation up for exposure to unnecessary risk. Say for example, in dealing with non-performance, I were to gloss over the severity or the negative consequences felt by the rest of the team, or to avoid talking about the danger of being terminated if matters were not properly rectified? Quite simply, the employee would be empowered to argue that I had not clarified properly the severity and that the next (more serious) level of intervention was therefore illegitimate and unjustified. And they would be right.
Eventually, we would have an employee who is severely underperforming and compromising an entire team’s delivery and culture, and they are bulletproof because we failed to address issues clearly when we should have. The work environment is getting toxic and resentful as others carry their load AND a bit more, and productivity and culture suffer critical damage.
A simple ER rule: In any ER situation, there is only one suit of armour. It is called proper process. Only one person can wear it and the employer gets to choose. If the employer follows good process and applies the principles fairly and consistently, they get to wear the armour. If they do not, the employee automatically wears the armour.
As much as possible, all matters need to be communicated and managed in private, to prevent unnecessary embarrassment and hurt. But they are also high stakes conversations as discussed before.
This can backfire, as happened recently after a private – and employee initiated – coaching and counselling conversation, when recollections of the conversations began to vastly “differ” and an attempt was made to undermine my intentions and portray my comments in a compromising light… It is challenging, and needs to be thought about very carefully. Requiring witnesses can cause instant suspicion and distrust of motives. Recording devices likewise. But a lack of some kind of evidence can be held against one just as easily… contemporaneous notes are good, but not infallible. A challenge!
But in a “he said, she said” situation (created by no witnesses and no records), how would anyone decide what was really said? Put another way, where is the protection for the employer, and for us as the employers representative in such a scenario?
The solution lies, as hinted at above, in having witnesses and creating a record.
Here is my method, and trust me, it works. It has worked recently.
- Work with the manager to ensure there is a common understanding of what is needed and how you are going to go about it. (If we are the manager involved, then get a senior colleague to be a sounding board. They will be a witness later to your preparation, the reasons for your actions, and your legitimate intent)
- Prepare draft correspondence for approval by line management, and if you are the involved manager, test it for objectivity, accuracy and kindness (yes, I said kindness) by someone else.
(At this stage you have a credible, consultative approach with witnesses, showing what you are intending to achieve and able to testify to motive, rationale, etc. You have also checked your planning and the style of your approach)
- Follow process to the letter with meeting requests and explanation of rights, time periods for feedback, preparation of responses etc
- Have a witness present. If they have a representative, you are outnumbered and if their story is different to yours, you will be on the back foot for credibility.
- Take notes, and if acceptable, and agreed, record the discussions. Preferably both parties should record it independently, because things can easily be edited nowadays.
- Summarise the discussion in an email afterwards. Say that they must revert with any changes or your email will stand as the agreed record of the discussion and its outcomes.
A note about Notes
Take good notes and keep a detailed record of things. Not just dates, attendees and facts, either. And especially not just the things that suit our own preferred version! Contemporary personal notes that demonstrate an understanding of and empathy for the other side’s perspectives, are powerful evidence of integrity and balance. Tones, expressions, motives, everything can be valuable in assessing and interpreting situations and creating effective strategies.
Our success often depends on our insight, and our failure is often caused by our lack of it. However, insight is just opinion, and opinions can be challenged. The perceptions and impressions we had at the time can easily be forgotten and lost – but not if we made notes. Contemporaneous and balanced notes can reliably transform a mere opinion into an informed and trustworthy insight.
Do my thoughts feel a bit like I am jaded and cynical? If so, rest assured I am not, but if you think that, then I can rest assured that I am well prepared for how things might go wrong. And that is effectively what we are preparing for in any confrontation of any sort. Nobody needs any protection or a back-up plan for when things go smoothly and according to plan. But honestly, how often does that really happen? And what would the consequences be if things blew up in our faces?
We are responsible to manage risk on behalf of a company. Not to create risk. That means, unfortunately, that we need to approach difficult situations with an eye for what can go wrong, and to prepare for that eventuality. Without losing a genuine sense of grace, and kindness, in our approach.
The Dragon is Innocence, or Naiveté, or simply being too nice or too trusting. And the weapon that prevents this being used against us is the Shield of Slightly Cynical Wisdom.