Few things strike fear in the hearts of leaders everywhere like having difficult conversations with employees. Difficult could mean a variety of things: giving negative feedback, sharing bad company news or listening to employee complaints.
Like when an employee tells you they are being harassed.
Or that they think their supervisor plays favorites.
Or when they demand more pay.
Communicating with employees in regular circumstances can be difficult, but throw in
No wonder they push employee grievance issues off on HR.
If we think about things that are HR time killers, employee grievances has to be up high on the list. I know HR leaders who spend all day on grievances. Or at the very least, unnecessary employee relations issues that take up way more time than they should. In an effort to deal with grievances, companies create grievance policies and procedures and carve out a section in their handbook to explain them both.
But if HR leaders ever want to spend less of their own time on employee grievances, they need to empower leaders to handle every complaint to the point they can and use HR as more of a sounding board than a participant. The process takes baby steps but for that leader wanting to empower leaders to handle more grievances on their own, here are a few things you can do.
Set the Tone Early
Shortly after I started my business I realized that by handling all employee relations issues as part of our outsourcing services, my phone would ring all the time with nothing but employee issues. Whether it be questions from leaders or complaints from employees, I knew that in order to keep this manageable I had to set expectations on the types of things that could be handled in house and the types of things to escalate to HR. In-house HR practitioners can do this too.
For me this was a more formal process during the client onboarding process. I created a list of scenarios that could happen on a day to day basis and gave them tips on how to handle them. For other items listed, such as a sexual harassment complaint, I gave advice on what to say initially, but then encouraged them to notify me immediately. It didn’t prevent leaders from calling me with things I wanted them to handle themselves, but it did give me the opportunity to remind them about the list and refer them back to it.
There isn’t any reason an HR leader can’t create their own guide to make accessible to leaders to refer to when employee grievances come their way.
Train on Communication
There are three topics that I get asked to train to the most and they all center around communication. The topics are: The Art of Difficult Conversations, Balancing Communication – How Much is Enough and Saying What You Mean (in a way others can hear it). It doesn’t matter how seasoned a leader is, no one feels as though they are a pro at facilitating difficult conversations. The more uncomfortable the topic, the more difficult it is to find the right words.
The more focused training a leader has around communication, the more comfortable they will feel having tough dialogue with an employee. While formal, facilitated training is best if available, encouraging leaders to read books on communication or even practice having tough conversations during meetings can go a long way. Anytime the HR leader has the opportunity to teach communication skills, they should take advantage.
Make them Participate
One of my early clients was a self professed confrontation avoider. He admitted early on that he would avoid having difficult conversations for as long as he could. He knew that it often made things worse rather than better, but hated tough conversations so much that he found it easier to avoid and deal with larger problems than face head on.
His desire to avoid was so strong that if he had his way, he wouldn’t even participate. He wanted to call me, tell me the issue and then have me take it 100% from there and just tell him when everyone was happy again.
Not so fast sir.
We all love pushing things off we don’t want to do. Unfortunately for HR, we can easily become the place where things are pushed. Especially those “touchy feely” things other leaders do not want to deal with. Employee grievances are often at the top of this list.
But we can’t give them that out.
Any leader who tells me they would prefer that I have a conversation because they don’t trust their own ability or are uncomfortable doing it don’t just get a pass. I will handle the conversation, but they are going to sit in. And they are going to sit in with the intention of being able to handle it on their own in the near future. Sitting in isn’t a free pass to just be a witness, it’s a learning opportunity and I want them to treat it as such.
Of course all leaders should have formal training on employee grievances early in their tenure with the company and then anytime the opportunity arises. If there seems to be a reoccurring theme in employee complaints, it’s probably a good idea to do some training around that area. In any kind of annual training you do, like preventing sexual harassment, you should carve out specific time to train leaders on how to handle this exact type of grievance from employees.
Of course there is training that needs to happen from an employee perspective as well, but we will save that for another post. The more HR leaders empower leaders to handle the employee grievances on their own that they can, the more time that HR leader has to focus on areas that really need their attention. Focus on this for 6 months and the way that your company handles grievances as a whole will change dramatically.
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