Brenda Knights Narrative

Most of the bad news I give has to do with employee discipline. I often see managers getting frustrated and thinking the worst of the situation, but one thing I’ve learned is that there’s always more to the story. Reserve judgement until you can talk to the employee and hear their side. The worst thing you can do is to just start lecturing them, then find out that there’s more to the story and it wasn’t as bad as you thought. Taking the time to understand what went on and allowing the employee to be heard really builds that level of respect.

One thing that makes difficult conversations easier is that they should never be a surprise to the employee. If the bad news comes out of the blue and there’s been no corrective coaching, no expectations set, and you just come down hard on someone, the message isn’t going to be heard. They’ll feel mistreated. That’s why it’s so important to take that time up front with employees to talk to them, to explain the expectations and to provide support so they can get on track. Discipline isn’t about getting people to termination. It’s about correcting behaviour and supporting people.

I always start with asking open-ended questions to see what comes out of that. Rather than saying, “you were late and this is against policy,” I need to find out why. That allows the employee to feel comfortable and share. What new information can I gather that will allow us to fix the problem? Did the bus schedule change? Was it a one-time thing? So, you get agreement from the employee about what the next steps are going to be and how we’re going to solve the problem together.

I had a situation where someone was late. I talked to the employee and it turned out that they were going through a separation and they were struggling to deal with two kids and get them to school on time. We came up with a plan. We were able to assign them to a different shift so they could take care of their kids and be successful. When you talk to your employee and work on problem solving, if they do continue to fail, they are more likely to hear the negative message because they know you’ve tried to work with them to resolve the situation already.

I’ve also had the difficult situation where I’ve tried to work with an employee, tried to problem solve, but they’re insistent that they’ve done nothing wrong and still aren’t following policies. Sometimes, you have to recognize that when you’re in a leadership role, you’re expected to conduct yourself professionally. You may come across employees who are going to push your buttons and even say things that are unpleasant. If someone is being aggressive, I will say, ‘I’m going to take a break until we can come back to the table and talk calmly. Let’s take a 5 or 10-minute break and calm down so we can collect our thoughts.” Sometimes I will also direct the conversation by asking questions to keep the conversation focused and to-the-point.

I’ve found that with about 95% of employees, taking time to talk with them and listen to them and work with them solves most problems. And if you have to end up terminating someone, it’s usually an amicable conversation because the employee knows you’ve done everything. They may be upset, but they feel that you’ve showed them respect and they’ll often own up to their mistakes. With that remaining 5%, who may be angry, it’s about knowing your audience. No matter what you say, you’re not going to change the person’s mind. There’s a difference of opinion. So, I go back to saying to the person, “Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for telling me that, but this is the policy, this is what’s expected, and the decision has been made.” You need to be firm. I try to end those conversations as quickly as possible, because you’re not going to change their way of thinking, you’re just going to inflame the situation the longer it goes on.

It’s also best not to sugar coat bad news. You want to stick to the facts. I will always prepare in advance. I’ll have the relevant policy ready, the dates and times of previous conversations and what was talked about, the letters I’ve used to document those meetings. But by the time we get to the point in the process where it’s a termination or really bad news, it’s usually not a shock. Just last week I had been working with an employee, but this business line was not financially where it needed to be. I’d been working for the past year and giving specific tasks around my expectations, but the employee wasn’t able to move the organization in the right direction. In the end, though, the employee was actually very receptive and said to me in the exit interview, “This isn’t a surprise. I knew this was coming. I knew you’d told me over the past year.” That’s the ideal outcome. It doesn’t come as a shock. Everyone feels respected.

I don’t want employees to be fearful of me or scared that I’ll come down on them. I have to see them in the field and in the community and I want them to feel comfortable and part of a team and not walk out feeling resentful. I’ve found that if you’re firm and fair, they will respect you.

As a manager and a leader, you have to know your employees really well. The old school style of leadership was that the leader didn’t associate with the employees. It was a very militant style. But nowadays a leader has to know their staff and know them well. One of our teachings is about finding people’s gifts, finding what makes them strong in a role. You have to set a person up for success.

We all have goodness within us. No one intends to be difficult or make your life challenging. But it’s taking the time and care to understand why someone is approaching something a certain way. Once you get at the why, it’s much easier to solve the problem. You just have to come at it with some empathy and understanding and respect.


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Business Writing For Everyone Copyright © 2021 by Arley Cruthers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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