In employee communication, supervisors address employee behaviors for improvement and both parties assume the best intention from the other.

By Peg Ayers

I once sat in on a conversation between the Director of Human Resources (HR) and a Contact Center Manager who was losing his job as part of a reduction in force.  The HR guy went on at length about how bad he felt about this, and how much he regretted having to do it, to the point where the manager being terminated finally said, “Could you just fire me and be done?”

A friend recently told me how her supervisor held a follow-up meeting with her a week after awkwardly reprimanding her for working (necessary) overtime.   He confessed he’d lost a night’s sleep worrying about that meeting.  “HE lost a night’s sleep?” she exclaimed.  “I lost sleep for a week, because I was treated unfairly, and he’s telling me HIS troubles?”

The HR Director was a nice guy who truly felt bad about the termination, and he thought he was being kind, but he was too focused on his own distress to see the terminated employee’s point of view.  My friend’s supervisor was too worried about being liked by his employees to see how ineffective his meetings were.

Initiating difficult conversations is part of any leader’s job.  It can be especially tough for new supervisors, but senior executives often struggle too.  Most people would prefer to have pleasant conversations and meetings.  They don’t enjoy reprimanding employees, especially if the employees disagree and push back.

The first step to effectively dealing with these conversations is to, as Dr. Stephen Covey taught us, “Begin with the End in Mind.” (Covey).  What do you need to accomplish?  What specific behavior needs to change?  Can you explain why?  What examples can you provide of the inappropriate behavior and its detrimental effects? How will you know when the problem is fixed?

Assume good intentions as you prepare to meet with your employee.  Most people are not getting up in the morning saying they’re planning to make your life miserable and goof up everything they touch, I promise.

Always focus on the behavior and what needs to change; avoid generalizations about the employee as a person, like “You’re always giving me attitude!”

Some issues are more straightforward than others.  If an agent consistently comes in late, it’s easy to tell when the problem is fixed, because they arrive on time.  You can explain why you need the behavior to change, because their lateness means customers wait longer for help and other agents have to work harder to cover.  But it can be more complicated to address an unhelpful attitude or apparent unwillingness to do the job properly.  Straightforward or not, you need to know what results you’re looking for when you plan your meeting.

Your plan should include your initial explanation of the issue, including the reasons why it matters, and then a chance for the employee to respond.  In our example of the agent coming in late, you may hear about a bus schedule problem or a childcare difficulty that can be easily solved by a schedule change.  But you may just get a shrug and a response of, “I’m doing the best I can.”

Once you hear the response, you’ll want to talk about what improvement is needed to meet the original objective.  It’s helpful to anticipate a few different employee responses in advance, perhaps role playing them with a colleague, in order to identify a variety of potential next steps.  Unless the response is unexpected and unusual, you should clarify the appropriate next steps in the initial meeting.  This includes specifics on the behavior that needs to change and a timeframe for improvement, with plans for regular follow-up.

If the response is miles from anything you expected, it’s best to end the initial meeting without responding, by thanking the employee for their input and indicating you’ll look into it.  You should offer a specific timeframe within which you’ll get back to them.  Then confer with your supervisor and/or Human Resources department to determine the appropriate response.

Regardless of the outcome of the initial meeting, it’s critical to follow up as promised.  You can’t hold a meeting requesting a change in behavior, then fail to track that behavior and hold additional meetings as promised.  This begs for poor performance, from that agent and others, and even for legal action if you choose to address the behavior again later on.  For example, if you discuss an agent’s lateness with them, then continue to allow it to happen, you may be in a difficult position if you later decide you want to terminate their employment for continually being late.  They can easily say they assumed it didn’t matter, as you never took any action.

The goal of your meeting and employee communication should be to correct behavior and help the employee become a fully contributing member of your team.  It should not be simply to document bad behavior, so you have enough in their file to terminate their employment.  Put aside your ideas about why they’re doing what they’re doing and listen to what they have to say.  You may be pleasantly surprised at the improvements that come about when people feel listened to and understood.

In summary, in employee communication, your meetings to correct employee behavior will be most effective if you: 

  • Begin with the end in mind:
    • What needs to change?
    • Why?
    • Examples?
    • By when?
    • How will you measure?
  • Assume good intentions
  • Focus on behavior
  • Listen to the employee’s response
  • Discuss improvement needed
  • Agree on a plan of action
  • Follow up as agreed
  • Take further steps as needed
  • Approach your meeting and employee communication optimistically

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(Oct 7, 2020)