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How to Dig into Workplace Complaints using Critical Conversation Skills

An employee complaint can be resolved with a critical conversation. However, workplace complaints that can be resolved by a critical conversation tend to have even higher emotions. Therefore it is a good idea to spend a decent amount of time repeating the steps of examining what is happening and acknowledging emotions before decisions on next steps are made.

Critical conversations that involve workplace complaints might also involve bringing in other parties to find out a bit more about what is really happening. The bottom line: You will be doing a bit more analysis on what the real problem is before you can work with the other parties on ideas of how to fix it.

Critical conversation skill: Examine what happened

Let’s say an employee comes to a senior manager soon after having a poor performance review with their manager and begins to complain that they feel discriminated against because the manager does not like her. The senior manager can effectively handle the situation by examining what is happening and acknowledging feelings, and then deciding what happens in the next phases of a critical conversation.

Employee Bob: "Terry is a horrible manager. He just does not like me and gave me a bad review."

Senior Manager Mike: "Thanks, Bob, for coming to me with your concern. Can you tell me a little more about the parts of your review that make you feel this way?"

Bob: "Well, he said I never contribute to the project. I work so hard. I am here every day and stay late. I work harder than any other person on that team. Terry just does not like me. He is just discriminating against me. I heard everyone else got great reviews and giant bonuses."

Mike: "I can understand how you might feel by putting in so many hours and not getting the review you expected. If we can try to keep the discussion focused on your performance and expectations, I would be happy to talk with Terry and get his perspective. Would you think that would help clarify parts of your review or would you like to recommend a different solution?"

Mike examined what was happening, acknowledged how Bob felt about what was happening, and then proposed one next step to continue identifying what is really happening. Now Bob has a choice of including his manager in the conversation or continuing to complain.

Of course, if Bob chooses to not involve his manager in a performance discussion, the conversation may continue like this:

Bob: "I really don’t think that will work. He is discriminating against me every day because he does not like me."

Mike: "I hear your concerns and I know tough reviews are often difficult to give and hear. If you feel you are being discriminated against and it is not just a misunderstanding, you may want to talk with human resources about your complaint."

Mike diffused a potentially emotional situation by listening to Bob, and recommending approaches to moving forward to find out more facts. He did not place blame or disregard the employee’s comments. Instead, he used empathy and honesty to help resolve the situation — the pillars of any critical conversation.

Outside of moving gracefully between examining what is happening, acknowledging the other’s feelings, and involving others as needed, there are a few other expert tips to keep in mind while trying to identify why the complaint surfaced while maintaining confidentially and respect: maintaining confidentiality, not placing blame, and separating personal issues from real grievances.

Critical conversation skill: Maintain confidentiality

Whether the situation can be resolved with a conversation or series of conversations, or if the issue has to be referred to higher sources, confidentiality is key. Keeping conversations behind closed doors might be legally required, but it also helps to maintain productivity and a positive work environment.

Confidentiality is the responsibility of all parties. If you do have to escalate issues to a third party, make sure all the parties know how the issue will be handled so there are no surprises. Confidentiality also helps to maintain the dignity of everyone involved, regardless of the outcome.

Critical conversation skill: Close the rumor mill

Sometimes a workplace issue is just blatantly obvious. It's best, however, not to say anything about the issue itself. Instead, focus on why confidentiality is important for everyone by saying, “I know there may be a desire to learn more about the issue, but for the sake of everyone involved, I ask that you respect my request for confidentiality.”

Critical conversation skill: Not placing blame

If someone is in your office complaining about a potential law being broken by a colleague and you’ve always thought that colleague was a bit deceptive, do your best to maintain a clear head and not judge the colleague guilty before the facts are in. If you feel that you can’t be objective, ask a manager to work on finding the facts. That helps you maintain an innocent-until-proven-guilty perspective.

Your role is to gather information so you can help decide who needs to be involved. Your role is not to interrogate a suspect at a crime scene. Instead, simply ask what happened and what he’s comfortable telling you. If you need to involve anyone else, let the employee know what steps you think you should take as well.

Critical conversation skill: Separate personal issues from valid grievances

Laws are in place to protect employees, but not every workplace issue is a legal issue. Some people may cry wolf — either intentionally or not — when they feel they’ve been wronged.

You don’t need to be an expert in employment law, but in many cases (with the exception of violence or gross misconduct), a critical conversation facilitated by a neutral party can help separate personal issues from potential legal concerns.

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