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Communicating complaints

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Q. I manage an employee, Les, who overheard another employee say bad things about him (for example, he was called “lazy and a good-for-nothing”). Now he’s really upset. Meanwhile, I’ve been displeased with Les’s performance for months, and Les knows that. As his manager, I can’t lash out and label him “lazy and a good-for-nothing,” but I have told him that he needs to work smarter and give 100 percent effort. Now Les wants a formal meeting with me and the head of H.R. to complain about what he overheard (and to get the other employee in trouble), but I don’t think it’s wise for me to play referee in this mess. There’s no proof of who said what, and I don’t want to get wrapped up in that debate anyway. I’d rather keep the issue focused on Les’s poor work product and what steps he’ll take to improve. How can I do this?

A. Use the meeting (preferably with the head of H.R. present) to accomplish two goals. First, you want to give Les a chance to vent. Hear him out. When he’s finished, tell him that you can’t control what others say, but you are responsible for managing the work flow in your unit. Now redirect the conversation so that you focus on his performance issues. On a flip chart, write the three top priorities that you want to discuss with him (for example: his follow-up, his accuracy and his speed). Then say, “As you can see, these are the three most important areas that you need to work on. Your follow-up has been spotty, your error rate is increasing and you’re falling behind more than ever. Let’s not let what others might have said divert us from these far more important issues. If you concentrate on raising the bar and producing better results, then you won’t have time to bother with what others say about you. Better yet, you’ll solidify your position here and give yourself a better chance of getting a promotion.” Be forewarned: Les may try to dwell on what he overheard, claiming that he’s hurt and demanding that you punish the other person. In a firm tone, suggest that Les channel that same energy into upgrading his own work rather than wasting it on getting so worked up over someone else’s remarks.

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