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Irate employees with HR complaints: How to calm them

by on
in The HR Specialist Forum

Question: "When some employees come into the HR office, they carry on like they’re at home yelling at their children! How can we let them know that this kind of behavior is out of line, without escalating their anger? What kind of language or techniques can we use to defuse these tense situations and get on with solving their problems?"  -- Maria, Florida


Having been in this situation, first, remain calm. Do not get hooked into the employee's anger. Explain that you are willing to listen to his/her concerns, but the conversation needs to be more professional, rational, adult (however you might frame it). Usually the employee will then calm down enough to be more rational just knowing someone is willing to listen. If during the conversation, the energy level starts to go back up, remind the employee of his/her tone.

There are times, however, when it might be appropriate to suspend the employee for the remainder of the day. This should be used on a case by case basis -- for example, the employee just can't get settled down enough to talk calmly which means he/she may be a problem out on the work floor; if the employee's anger was in a more public area than your office; if the employee was using inappropriate language and/or was threatening; or for any other reason that would deem it appropriate for the employee to be removed from the premises. Depending on the situation, it may be determined to terminate employment. The suspension allows time for everyone to cool down and for you to think more clearly.

These are always uncomfortable situations, but when you remain calm you are not adding "fuel to the flame."

I've found that using basic "customer service" skills usually works. It's kind of like when you're having an argument with the cable company. A good customer service rep will try to defuse your anger by:
1. Expressing empathy with your problem. "I understand you are upset because you got billed for a pay per view you didn't order."
2. Acknowledging your anger. "I appreciate that this has made you upset."
3. Suggesting a solution or asking for a solution. "We can take that off your bill now, or credit it to next month's bill." Or "What can we do for you to resolve this situation."
Of course, that's in the ideal world, and it is alot harder when it's face to face in the office.
The bottom line is first, get the person calmed down and then move on to solving the problem.

The most important thing to remember when confronted by an irate employee is to stay calm and to remember that the anger is not personal. Usually, the employee is upset about a situation or a preceived wrong. If you remain calm, ask open-ended questions and show accurate empathy, the employee will calm down and allow you to problem-solve with him.

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