I’ve had the privilege to manage hundreds of people over the years. In that time, I think I’ve seen and heard (and smelled!) almost everything. That said, I try to remember, “Behind each set of eyes, there is a story.” I know things are rarely what they seem.
If you only take 1 thing from this post, I hope it’s this: Don’t let problems fester before you address them.
I know confrontation can be awkward and uncomfortable and the last thing you want to do on a Monday – or whatever day it is. But the faster you talk one-on-one with your employee about an issue, the easier it’ll be to fix.
When you address these problems the right away, you’re proving that you care. Blindsiding them with it in their performance review three months after it occurs won’t help them – or you.
Address the issue before it becomes a habit
Most workplaces have at least one resident office screamer or temper-tantrum-thrower. When the outbursts aren’t violent or aren’t direct threats, it can be easy to dismiss them to avoid confrontation. I think this is a bad strategy. This issue is a huge red flag, especially if it’s consistent.
Ideally, you should address the issue the first time your employee loses their temper. And while it’s important to ask questions regarding the reason for the outburst, it’s just as important to assert that you won’t tolerate future outbursts. Make sure to remind them of your policies for consequences if it happens again. That means you have to have policies.
Have a clear policy to address the disruptive behavior
To avoid discrimination suits, create crystal-clear policies that you carry out with all employees. If an employee files a suit under the ADA or FMLA, you’ll need to prove that you reacted the same in all cases for all employees.
Still, know that employees protected by the FMLA or ADA may need reasonable accommodations beyond your defined policies. For example, you can suspend someone with a psychiatric disability in accordance with your policies, but after suspension, they may be entitled to an additional leave of absence so they can get treatment that will enable them to avoid the same infraction in the future.
Call it out
The actual outburst likely won’t reveal the underlying issue. In the moment, focus on diffusing the situation so their behavior doesn’t escalate and everyone can get back to work. Then in private ask them why they’re upset, then state in clear terms that you’re on their side by finding some common ground. After acknowledging their frustration, give them the option to discuss it later after they’ve had time to calm down.
If their outburst is aimed at a coworker…
You want to be careful to address the situation without speaking for their coworker. All employees should feel empowered to handle issues between themselves before bringing them to you.
If this isn’t the first time this has happened, you should speak with the coworker in private.
Find out if they’ve tried to draw boundaries with their coworker. Did it work? How did their coworker react?
Find out whether they feel like they can handle the situation themselves, or if they need you (or HR) to step in. Even if they think they can handle it themselves, you might still need to step in if it’s affecting other coworkers or if the situation isn’t improving. There may need to be a point when you say something, for example:
“I recognize that you think you can handle Jane’s outbursts, but I’m going to step in now because she’s not responding to you. I appreciate that you tried to deal with it on your own, but I’m going to ask you to let me deal with her from here on out. Hopefully Jane and I can work together to find a solution.”
If their outburst is aimed at you…
When faced with these situations, most people get a strong fight or flight response; I know I do. But resist the urge to resort to their tactics – but don’t ignore the problem either. Confront their outburst head on…
Forget about deciding if they’re right or wrong. The best way to diffuse the situation is the make them feel heard and like you’re on their side. Restate their complaint in a way that shows you hear them and want to help.
Figure out why it’s happening
Here are some of the most common reasons people lose their temper:
- High stress
- Feeling unheard
- It’s the only way they know to get their way
- Psychiatric or physical disability prevents them from expressing frustration healthily
- Feeling threatened
- Suffering from a personal crisis
Your employee could be lashing out for one or more of these reasons, and it can take some time to figure out the root cause of your employee’s outbursts. So be patient; it might take several conversations before you figure it out. Getting to the bottom of issues like this require a level of trust you need to develop over time (if you have it). Document each incident to find patterns, and build support should you decide to dismiss them because of their outbursts.
How I actually handled it
I’ve had a few employees over the years that have struggled with angry outbursts, both male and female. I handled them similarly.
In the specific case of Ken, I recognized a pattern. He would be handling his responsibilities well, then, gradually, I would notice his stress level rise. He would try to bottle it up, but eventually he’d blow.
The first time we met, I asked some questions: “What are some of the frustrations that led up to the incident? Could you feel your anger growing? What can I, as your manager, do to help?”
I then explained the two issues his behavior caused: He created fear on his team, and he was developing a reputation that would make it hard to have the kind of influence he hoped to have with our company.
Now, the solution I implemented isn’t for everyone; I’m generally thick-skinned, so aside from helping mitigate the circumstances that caused his outbursts, I also told him he could vent with me anytime, any place, without judgement. He could cuss, scream and yell with me and there would be no consequences. In exchange, he would control himself around others.
Generally, it worked! Occasionally, he would even take me up on my offer, pulling me aside to share his frustrations. That seemed to be the kind of catharsis he needed to lower his stress level and put an end to his blowing up around his coworkers.
It’s clear to everyone that we live in a polarized world, where many people have difficulty understanding views that differ from their own. An open, healthy conversation can be productive and promote community in the workplace. But argumentative, insensitive, toxic political statements will kill your company culture.
Political statements that aren’t harassment
In situations where political statements don’t qualify as harassment but are still destructive, it’s best to have a one-on-one conversation with the offender. When you confront an employee whose comments have crossed a line, try to cover these things:
- Let them know how others experience their comments with specific examples. Talk about a time one of their comments shut down or even demeaned others.
- Ask about their motivation for sharing those comments in the workplace. What is their end goal?
- Set up specific guidelines for them if they refuse to stop making such comments. You can also remind them of any company policies on political talk in the workplace.
- Make it clear that if their behavior worsens and/or continues, you will pursue actions permitted by law. You need to have a zero-tolerance harassment policy.
- Remember, culture is king, and this kind of thing can kill it!
And wherever you can, empower the offender and the one offended to work it out between themselves – interpersonal solutions are always more effective than getting management involved on one party’s behalf.
Political statements that are harassment
Not only are provocative political statements harmful to company culture, but they also can be illegal. If the comments make your work environment intimidating, hostile or offensive, proceed carefully. The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) handles harassment claims on a case-by-case basis, and HR may also have guidelines on how you should proceed.
How I actually handled it
Politics can be a scary beast. People we like in almost any other situation can make us crazy with their politics. I’ve dealt directly with several people who incited political debate at work.
I still remember Dave. He saw politics in black and white, and he let it be known that his way of thinking was the only way. He infuriated a decent number of my staff with his social media posts, which normally wouldn’t have been an issue – we DO live in a free country. But my particular organization forbade staff from identifying themselves with our company while speaking politically on social media channels. Dave broke every rule in the book.
I tried to have a reasonable conversation with Dave. I asked him how he thought his coworkers interpreted what he wrote, and to put himself in the shoes of others. But nothing worked because Dave just didn’t understand how others could take offense at his comments. He fought me at every turn.
So I did something I rarely do – I threatened to fire him if he did it again.
And you know what? It worked! In fact, he thanked me for it! He said, “I didn’t understand how serious this was until you said you’d fire me. I get it now. Thanks for clarifying.” And he never did it again.
Take courage. Not everyone is as difficult as Dave, and even people like him can change! But this issue can be a cancer to your team. You must deal with it!
Let me start by stating the obvious – sexual harassment is a very serious matter. It’s demeaning and dangerous, and cannot be tolerated in your company. It also opens up your company to lawsuits and a boatload of bad publicity. You must respond immediately and decisively.
Figure out if it qualifies as harassment
Before you act, do your research and familiarize yourself with what is and is not sexual harassment. Don’t take shortcuts – understand what your facing from the outset.
Take swift, decisive action
Here are 5 steps to guide your response:
- Document, document, document. Be detailed – note what was said, who said it, to whom it was directed, who witnessed it, when it was said, and the context in which it was said.
- Interview the people involved. Talk privately with the victim and witnesses to get the story straight. Listen openly to everyone’s story and remind each person that they won’t be punished for speaking against the harasser.
- Interview the harasser. Use the same sense of propriety that you used when speaking to the victim and witnesses.
- Present the information. After hearing all sides of the story, let each side know what you’ve found out.
- File a claim with the EEOC. If the harassment is significant and/or ongoing, the victim may want to file a claim with the EEOC. Provide them with the resources necessary and assure them that you stand with them.
How I actually handled it
Mark was happily married by all accounts; he talked about his wife often, and it was clear they had a good relationship. But Mark had a problem – he saw himself as a mentor to younger women, and he liked to encourage them with hugs. As you can imagine, this made many of them uncomfortable.
After talking with the women, I set up one-on-one time with Mark. When I brought it up, he got angry. He saw my inquiry as judging his marriage and his intent. I tried to explain that I wasn’t judging him, I was just acting on what the women told me.
Surprisingly, Mark fought me there, too. He played the, “Well no one has ever told me that before,” card.
I explained that this kind of thing is very difficult to bring up, and his response was a illustrated that very fact. (Plus, Mark was a huge, imposing man.) I explained that his pure intentions were beside the point – that the women weren’t comfortable with his touchiness, and that was what mattered.
He still wouldn’t accept it. “This is the way I am, and my wife is good with it.”
Now, I’m not a manager who likes leading by directive, but on issues like this, I have a zero-tolerance policy. He was not to touch a female employee. Ever.
Mark didn’t last much longer with us. Sure, we felt his loss, but our female employees trusted our leadership team all the more for listening to and supporting them.
In their book “School Culture Rewired,” Scott Gruenert and Todd Whitaker say it well:
“The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”
Don’t tolerate any form of sexual harassment. You’ll avoid the associated legal issues, and you’ll have a happier, healthier culture!
Every work culture is different. Some are more abrasive than others. How much you tolerate remarks that some would consider derogatory, inappropriate or hurtful affects several things:
- Overall corporate culture
- Respecting the dignity of people in the workplace
- Keeping your company out of court
Find out if it’s harassment
The first question you need to answer is whether your employee made the comment maliciously, in jest or out of ignorance. Some racial comments are obviously inappropriate and should never be tolerated – those qualify as harassment – while others are comments made innocently or in jest. You need to address both, one with termination and the other with education.
Make no mistake – both types of comments are inappropriate. But understanding whether the comments are intended as harassment or humor will inform how you address the problem.
Comments repeatedly directed at a single person clearly made because of their ethnicity are unqualified racial harassment. These comments have the biggest ramifications when you don’t handle them swiftly and sternly.
Not only is racial harassment a despicable moral offense, but Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from racial harassment, so if you don’t address the harassment appropriately, the harassed employee can sue, costing your company thousands in fines and legal fees.
You need to make it clear as quickly as possible that you as an employer do not condone or take part in such behavior. Do not hesitate to fire employees who’ve had this problem before and refuse to grow past it.
Sit down with first-time offenders and lay out the issue. Ask questions about their intent, and whether they noticed the reaction of those around them when the comment was made. Try to understand why they thought the comment was appropriate. Then, explain why what they said was offensive and lay out the possible consequences should it happen again. With harassment, it isn’t simply a matter of making all employees feel safe at work (though this should still be a high priority). It’s also a matter of defending your corporate culture and protecting your legal liability.
Just because Title VII doesn’t protect employees from insensitive jokes doesn’t mean you can’t have policies against them. Employees making racial jokes or slurs might not even realize they’re being offensive. They could genuinely believe there are no hard feelings because it’s “just a joke.”
But insensitive comments foster a negative workplace environment even if they don’t qualify as harassment.
You’ll want to sit down with your employee and explain…
- Why what they said was offensive
- What the consequences will be if they continue
- What other comments they should avoid (if they genuinely didn’t realize their comments were wrong)
Tread carefully in these discussions. Comments meant as humor can easily cross the line into harassment.
Assess your corporate culture
After dealing with the specific situation, take a step back. Find out if you have more employees making inappropriate racial comments. Your policies about work-appropriate humor and language might be too vague or out-of-date.
How I actually handled it
I generally approached this the way I dealt with inappropriate sexual comments; this stuff will kill your culture. But sometimes the racial issues are more subtle.
In my experience, people don’t spew racist epithets openly. In fact, most people I’ve talked with were unaware they were being offensive at all.
If your workplace is diverse, you’ll eventually deal with this issue. It’s important for everyone in your company to feel safe, and insensitive discourse can erode safety and trust.
The place this often comes up is in political talk. On most occasions I have simply approached my employee and tried to coach them. Most people making offensive comments have had very little exposure to people from different cultures, so I point out the specific comment, explain how it could have been interpreted by employees from different ethnic backgrounds, and ask them to think about how they might communicate more sensitively. If the issue doesn’t subside, I go into a detailed performance improvement process meant to rehabilitate the staff member. If even this fails, I start to discuss letting them go.
As I said, racial insensitivity can kill your culture.
In most cases, I’ve seen significant growth in the employees I spoke with; but I had a HUGE advantage. I had an African-American employee willing to patiently walk others through the process of understanding racial issues. If you have someone on your staff willing to take on this role, it will help you immensely!
There are scores of legal battles around what is and isn’t workplace appropriate attire. You may have heard about the woman in the UK who was sent home for not wearing heels and the 152,420 signatures she got in protest; your workplace dress code is an area for deliberate and sensitive deliberation.
Dress-code discrimination claims rooted in gender or race are less successful than those rooted in religion. The EEOC requires you to adapt your dress code policies so they don’t violate your employees’ religious beliefs, unless you can prove that the accommodation would cause undue hardship. Regardless of who wins, lawsuits are never fun, so tread carefully as you address this issue.
Consult your dress code policy
Before you approach your employee, make sure you can point to the exact spot in your dress code policy that they’re violating. And if you don’t have a policy, it would be wise to create one.
If you’re having problems with employees dressing inappropriately, add a dress code policy to your employee handbook. Be careful as you add clauses to your policy, however. Printing it in your policy handbook doesn’t mean it’s not sexist, racist or religiously intolerant. In an age when employees are shirking dress codes in the name of personal expression, ask yourself what effect your employees’ attire has on business. Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean you need to put it in the dress code policy.
Your dress code should mesh with your company culture and client expectations.
Talk to your employee
Normally it’s best to talk one-on-one with your employees. Open conversations can be very effective in solving new and ongoing employee issues. But before you act, however, consider this when you have an employee dressing inappropriately:
If it’s a modesty issue, things will be less awkward (and more appropriate) when whoever talks to your employee is the same gender. But if you’re male and she’s female, you may want to bring in another female manager to chat with her. And the opposite is true too. If you’re female and he’s male, consider asking a male manager to talk with him.
If you feel comfortable addressing it with your employee regardless of gender, then use tact – and document everything.
How I actually handled it
Most situations where I have encountered this have been pretty cut-and-dried. If you have a written dress code, most of your employees will follow it, and on the occasion where someone dresses inappropriately, I simply helped them understand the intent of the dress code. It’s also helpful to give them specific examples of what “appropriate” looks like.
Michelle, however, made this very difficult. Our workplace was very casual, and not only did she dress immodestly, but and her job required that she lift equipment, so it wasn’t hidden away in a cubicle. No one thought her attire appropriate, and it made her coworkers uncomfortable.
When confronted (by a woman) about the situation, Michelle got very defensive. She didn’t understand why people couldn’t keep their eyes to themselves and why her comfort needed to be sacrificed for others.
Unfortunately, it turned out that this wasn’t just an issue of appropriate dress, but of the way she viewed her team.
Several female coworkers spoke with Michelle and put together a list of appropriate clothing, but sadly, Michelle never got to the point where she understood why she needed to change. She just couldn’t appreciate that this issue was a matter of respect and sacrifice for her teammates. Though she eventually (almost) complied with our dress code, I think our company culture eventually led Michelle to leave, and most folks were relieved.
If you run into a situation like this, ask yourself about the root of the problem. You may find, as I did, that it’s not an issue of dress, but an issue of respect.
Most managers would agree that discussing hygiene with employees is one of the most uncomfortable conversations they ever imagine.
The key to minimizing embarrassment on both ends is to discuss the topic openly without beating around the bush, just as you’d do if talking about tardiness or poor communication.
Define for yourself why their poor hygiene is a problem
It’s possible that your employee’s level of hygiene is a personal or cultural preference. Not everyone showers every day, and not everyone washes their clothes after every use. Is the problem overwhelming body odor that distances clients or is it that sometimes their hair looks a bit greasy?
Before you confront your employee, make sure their hygiene is disrupting their coworkers, damaging client relationships or negatively affecting your company’s image. If it’s simply a minor annoyance to one or two of their coworkers, it’s may not be worth addressing.
It’s also important to recognize that poor hygiene can include using too much perfume or cologne, especially if someone in your office is allergic or sensitive to scents.
Consult your personal hygiene and grooming policies
Just like you should have dress code policies, you should also have personal hygiene and grooming policies. By having official documentation of what’s expected, you have an impartial standard by which you can measure all of your employees.
Instead of relying on the word of an upset coworker, you can point to your office’s official policies as impetus for change.
Discuss the issue frankly
Near the end of the work day, hold a private meeting to discuss the issue. Make sure you do it at the end of the day so that your employee doesn’t have to sit at their desk for the rest of their day, hyperaware that they smell or are causing a coworker to have an allergic reaction.
If you aren’t very close with your employee, you may be better off handing this off to a manager or supervisor they’re closer to – or at least a manager or supervisor of the same gender.
If possible, find a way to start by praising their work of late before broaching their hygiene. You want to reassure them that you aren’t discussing anything too serious.
Try saying something like this:
“I’ve appreciated the hard work you’ve put in on your projects over the last month. But the main reason I want to talk is to discuss something that can be an awkward and even sensitive topic for many of us – myself included. Because many of the people I’ve talked to about similar issues didn’t realize it was an issue until I brought it up, I know it’s important to talk about. I’ve noticed lately that [insert hygiene issue here]. It’s [insert effect on professional life here]. Per our hygiene and grooming policy, I have to ask that you resolve this issue as soon as possible. If you need any help thinking through this, I’m happy to help.”
Name the problem
Here are some ways you can phrase different hygiene issues:
- “The odor of your body has been too strong.”
- “Your breath is a bit overwhelming.”
- “The cologne/perfume you wear is too strong.”
Make it clear why it’s an issue
Here’s how you can phrase some effects their hygiene could be having on their professional life:
- “Coworkers and clients in close proximity have a hard time focusing.”
- “You’re making a different first impression than we’d like when you get close to new clients to shake their hand.”
- “Some of your coworkers are allergic or sensitive to certain scents, and your perfume/cologne seems to be one of them.”
Don’t ask why
There’s a chance your employee’s lackluster grooming is due to a medical condition (protected under the ADA) or their race, religion or national origin (protected under Title VII). In either case, do not speculate about why your employee’s hygiene is subpar unless they bring it up to you themselves. Until they name a cause for their hygiene, you have to treat the issue as a surface-level issue.
If they choose to disclose that the reason their hygiene has been suffering is because of something protected by the ADA or Title VII, it’s your duty to grant them reasonable accommodations.
How I actually handled it
This has been one of the most difficult areas for me to confront, largely because it’s so personal and subjective. When I’ve had to broach the subject, my strategy has depended on my relationship with the employee.
Jim and I were close enough that when I noticed his body odor (we were a hard-working team that sweated a LOT), I simply asked him if he had switched deodorants. When he asked why I thought he did, I told him why – he was pretty stinky. Our relationship was good enough that he didn’t take offense, and he got the message.
Unfortunately, personal hygiene issues are often symptoms of deeper problems, and wading through them all at once just doesn’t work. There’s no silver bullet here, so my main tactic is to develop a relationship with the staff member. Then I get to help them grow in every area; hygiene included. Once you’ve built a mutual trust, your relationship should be able to survive even the most uncomfortable conversations.
Most of us work in offices without walls; either there are short cubicles or nothing at all separating us from our coworkers.
And it’s noisy.
Did you know that noisy coworkers are the number one distraction in most offices?
Because it’s nearly impossible to find a place to shut out distractions, it’s extremely important that your employees respect each other’s work styles. A single Talkative Tom or Chatty Cathy can ruin it for everyone.
Set some ground rules
As soon as you switch to a new office layout, take a few minutes to talk about the ground rules with everyone over lunch. Explain the benefits of the new layout, but don’t forget to address challenges. Make sure everyone will be able to work comfortably in the new environment.
Say you’re getting rid of cubicles in favor of an open floor plan (something we did not too long ago). Say something like this:
“We’re excited about the collaboration this new floor plan will encourage. It’ll be easier to pop over to your coworker’s desk to ask a quick question, and you’ll be able to see if they’re on a call or tuned into what they’re working on before popping in to bother them. We want to foster a friendlier workplace, and this kind of office plan should do that. Of course, we want to make sure you’re not distracted all the time, so we’re going to create ground rules and signals to tell your coworkers when you need to focus in on something.”
Here are some office norms we have that work well:
- Headphones on means “do not disturb”
- No talking in the back room
- Keep non-work-related conversations to a minimum
Even if you’ve had an open floor plan for a while, you can still send out a memo laying out a few ground rules with something like this as a preface: “To help everyone focus better as we tackle this quarter’s big project, we’re going to set some ground rules. Please follow them so that we all have fewer distractions throughout the day.”
Let your employees figure it out
You don’t want your employees coming to you with every little issue. If the office Talkative Tom is distracting everyone, try not to step in right away. Give your employees some time to deal with the problem themselves.
If Talkative Tom doesn’t get small hints, give your employees some tips for being more direct. Make sure your employees are comfortable saying, “Can we talk about this later? I need to finish this” and “Would you mind keeping it down? I need as few distractions as possible today so I can finish this up for the boss.”
An open floor plan means your employees need to be comfortable being assertive about their noise-level needs.
Sometimes, there’s no way around it. Your talkative employee won’t stop talking, and their coworkers can’t tune them out.
Something’s gotta give.
Can you move your talkative employee somewhere people handle distractions better? Or could you move your distracted employees somewhere with walls or other coworkers who also need as few distractions as possible?
Handle it one-on-one
If subtlety and relocation aren’t good options, pull your talkative employee aside. It’s time to find out why they’re distracting their coworkers so much.
- They need help. Like most of us, their work feels like the most important thing in the world, but it isn’t. Help your employee see that their coworkers often feel everyone’s work is of equal importance, and every time they interrupt their coworkers, they’re pulling them out of the zone and reducing overall productivity. Suggest they send an email or set up a meeting when they get stuck on something, and remind them that sometimes, Google is their best resource.
- They’re too friendly. Who doesn’t want an office full of friends? It’s great that your employee wants to help build a positive corporate culture, but let them know that interrupting their coworkers actually does the opposite. While it’s good to be friendly and chitchat a little, you’re not paying your employee to make friends. Plus, their coworkers are only going to get more annoyed with them the more they interrupt them.
When you pull them aside, aim to make them see that their talkativeness is a real issue, not just a minor annoyance.
How I actually handled it
Trent was a super friendly guy, and he made it a habit to walk through the office and greet his peers every day.
Wait a minute. Isn’t that a good thing? Developing relationships with coworkers builds a culture of trust and natural collaboration. So why would that be a problem?
Well, Trent didn’t read the signals of his peers. He’d interrupt people when they were in the middle of something that required intense thought and focus. He didn’t know that some of his coworkers thought his greeting of, “Hi! How are you today?” was inconsiderate – exactly the opposite of his intent!
This is a great example of the need for ground rules. The first thing I did was talk with Trent about different work styles. I gave him some cues to look for that indicated when people needed space to focus. As far as team-wide changes, I added this ground rule: “When someone has their headphones in, they are unavailable. Use Slack (our instant messaging application) to communicate with them if you have a need.”
This helped people work without interruption, and helped them not feel like jerks for having to say, “Please leave me alone, I need to focus.” Trent also felt better, because he never intended to be a nuisance to his teammates. Everybody won!
Another woe of the open floor plan.
But even if you have an office full of, well, offices, there’s always someone whose voice penetrates even the thickest of doors.
You’ll notice this problem without other employees bringing it to your attention, but unless it’s affecting your work, wait until someone brings it up to you. Give your employees a chance to settle it among themselves. Who knows? It might not even bother them.
If your employee spends a good part of their day on the phone or in meetings, you can’t ask them to talk less. Instead of trying to get them to quiet down, see if you can find a more private area for them to take their calls.
Of course, that could feel like you’re banishing them to some remote part of the office, so let them keep their current desk for when they need to work quietly.
Ask them to lower the volume
If your employee doesn’t need to talk as a core function of their job, ask them to speak more quietly. One of the most annoying things about people’s voices is how loud they can be. You can let them know which areas in the office are more isolated, so if they can’t control their volume, then at least they can go where they’ll be disturbing fewer people.
As for employees with distracting voices who speak about non-work-related issues, simply ask them to speak a little less.
Help their coworkers
If you can’t do anything about your employee’s distracting voice, your best bet might be to help their coworkers drown them out.
Here are some suggestions:
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- White noise
How I actually handled it
I’m an enthusiastic communicator, and I once had a job booking bands into concert venues. Essentially, I was a salesman, and I needed to be…enthusiastic (which is essentially a euphemism for loud).
After several passive comments from my supervisor (that I didn’t respond to), he confronted me. And I appreciated how he did it; before he brought up the issue, he covered why it was an issue. He mentioned that he appreciated my enthusiastic approach to my job, but our open office configuration didn’t jive with my need for upbeat conversation. He asked me about my work schedule and the tools I needed to succeed.
This was before the advent of portable computing, so moving my desktop machine to another room wasn’t an option. But because I did need a computer to work effectively, we worked out a calling schedule. Together, we established some quiet hours, and I scheduled calls with those times in mind. If I needed to communicate during the quiet hours, I told my customers I was in a place where I needed to speak quietly. I never had any problem with either my customers or my fellow coworkers after we worked that out.
My supervisor’s approach to this is a good example of what I mentioned at the very beginning of this post. There’s no substitute for speaking honestly with your staff and engaging them in solving the problem!
We all know a Talkative Tom and Chatty Cathy, right? They walk up to your desk and start a conversation, not caring about the work they may have interrupted. They’re extremely social, and may not have much self-awareness.
Before you confront them for being too talkative, ask yourself “Is their chattiness affecting their or their coworkers’ ability to work effectively?”
If not, be gracious. Chatting might be their way of de-stressing throughout the work day, and perhaps what looks like meaningless chitchat is actually team collaboration.
If it is negatively impacting the team however, take corrective measures. When their chattiness is harming themselves or others it’s time to put an end to it.
Update your office norms
Give every employee an updated copy of the office norms.
It’ll include things like:
- Headphones in mean “do not disturb”
- No talking in the work room
- No gossiping in the lunch room
- Arrive five minutes early for meetings to get the talking out early
Make sure you outline the the importance of breaking office norms. It might feel silly to say that there will be consequences for gossiping, but think of it as protecting your office culture. Remember, getting your culture right will improve the rest of your business. Clear office norms make it much easier to sit down with your talkative employee and reinforce the policy.
Every office has some unspoken norms as well. Your employees determine these on a personal level. Things like being alone while they eat, not sharing overly personal stories and minimizing interruptions during their most productive hours. They’re like boundaries. Outline to your disruptive employee their coworker’s work styles to help them understand unspoken norms. Be specific, and tell them how often you’ll check in to track progress.
Enforce nonverbal and verbal cues
- Backing away
- Continuing to work during the conversation
- Walking away
- “I’m busy right now.”
- “Can we finish this conversation another time?”
Honestly, as any experienced manager knows, it’s not easy to get your employee to pick up on cues they’ve always ignored. But patience and understanding from you will make the process easier.
Discuss the specific cues you’ve noticed your employee missing. Then, touch base with them when you see them miss a cue. It’ll create in-the-moment accountability for them.
Here’s an example:
“Hey John! From what I heard when I grabbed my lunch from the break room, it sounded like you had a crazy weekend! But what did you notice about Steve and Cheryl’s body language? Did you notice how Steve and Cheryl were turned away from you and took small steps backward every once in a while? Tomorrow, try asking questions about their weekend first. I heard about Steve’s weekend earlier. Now there’s a story I’m glad I didn’t miss!”
Of course, don’t feel like you need to monitor every conversation your employee has; just any conversations you’re already a part of with your employee and other coworkers, and your one-on-one conversations.
Create opportunities for socialization
It’s no fun to walk past a group of your employees and see all but one of them zoned out. At holiday parties, before work meetings, over lunch – you want your employees to bond. When your employees like each other, they work better together.
Your talkative employee could be trying to fix the shortage of friendliness on their own. They just want to be closer with their coworkers, and for some reason, their desk seems to be the best place to do it.
If you’ve failed to create opportunities for your employees to socialize, acknowledge it. Do others feel the same way? Think about creating a committee of a few employees to organize social events, and include your too talkative employee on that board. It’ll help them channel their social energy into something productive.
How I actually handled it
Katie was the quintessential extrovert. She had a smile for everyone and was genuinely interested in everyone she came in contact with. So a “Hi, how are you?” conversation could often take 30 minutes.
In the middle of the office. Distracting everyone.
I appreciated Katie’s care for our staff. But the productivity of the people who worked near Katie’s desk was suffering. When I met with Katie, I thanked her for her positive influence before I voiced my concern. I talked about how some people need a quiet work environment and then asked her to move deeper conversations to the lunch or break room.
Before we ended the conversation, I asked Katie several questions about her job. Turns out she had less responsibility than others, giving her more free time to socialize. Without being passive-aggressive, I asked her supervisor to give her more to do. Consequently, Katie herself became more productive, and those around her (who genuinely loved her) were happy with their own productivity increase as well.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not, typically, and authoritative leader. Still, in the early years of email and chat, I laid out two imperatives to my staff:
Rule 1: Never write a negative email.
Rule 2: Never forget rule 1.
Okay, I know. It’s not that easy. (If only it were!)
Negative emails are almost never a good thing, but sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what constitutes negativity.
Your employee probably doesn’t mean to seem like a Debbie Downer every time they hit send, but if that’s how other people are receiving it, it needs to be addressed.
Whether you noticed it yourself or one of their coworkers brought it up to you, the solution is the same:
- Help them understand how written communication differs from verbal.
- Give them tools to overcome the differences between written and verbal communication.
I’ve found that this takes patient coaching throughout a series of one-on-one meetings. And between meetings, I try to keep them accountable to how we agree they’ll improve their attitude in emails and instant messages.
Let’s look at some of the most important things to cover in coaching meetings.
Stress that written communication is up for interpretation
In a perfect world, the medium we’d use to communicate wouldn’t matter. Our message would be clear regardless of whether we spoke, typed, or even acted it out.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world full of mind readers.
As much as 93% of our communication is nonverbal, so body language and vocal tone play an important role in effective communication. Your employee needs to recognize the shortcomings of written communication. The goal is to help them understand how a reader feels when they open a negative email. Without nonverbal context, their coworkers have to guess what your employee meant by “Got it.” Unfortunately, people often gravitate towards the most negative interpretation of written communication and they’ll think your employee was being negative.
Help them keep their audience in mind
Written communication can feel very one-sided as we write it. We’re not looking at our recipient. Without gauging their reaction in real time and adapting what we say next to their initial reactions, it’s easy to forget that there’s a living, breathing human on the other side of the screen.
Here’s an example of what you could say to your employee:
“When you’re writing emails and chat messages, try to keep this one thing in mind: everything we put in writing puts us at the mercy of the mood of the person reading. Are they in a good mood? Did they have a fight with their wife in the morning? Are they at a standstill on an important project? Did they eat a bad hot dog? We have no idea, and that puts us at risk for misinterpretation.”
Try a few exercises
Review an email they sent. Look at a reply they recently sent to a coworker. Before you tell them how you would have done it, ask them a few questions. See if they can get there on their own. How does their coworker usually talk to them? Have they talked to their coworker in person recently? What personal touch could they add to show they care about their coworker and aren’t just a robot spitting out a single-word reply?
Compare and contrast. Have your employee respond to an email that you’re both in on. Write out your own response as well. Then, compare and contrast your responses. Point out differences in tone, niceties, and greeting and closing.
Give them some notes. After comparing and contrasting how you both worded your emails, write down the differences on a physical sticky note or a memo on their desktop. The idea is to give them a visual reminder of what they should add to their email and chat messages.
Practice. It’s work. Changing the way your employee communicates isn’t going to be easy. Repeat the exercise that resonates most with your employee, or create one of your own. Eventually, you should see some improvement. Check in at least weekly to keep your employee accountable.
It’s really going to be hard for your employee to switch their frame of mind every time they start typing. But with enough encouragement and patience from you, there is hope.
Encourage them to leave the computer and phone behind
When your employee writes an email, they’re engaging in 2-dimensional communication. There’s too much room for the receiver to misinterpret.
If all else fails, help your employee think through other effective and less-risky ways to communicate. To a point, they’ll seem friendlier if they respond in person rather than with a terse email.
By striking up conversations , their coworkers will be able to read your employee’s tone and body language instead of guessing what your employee meant when they wrote that email or chat message.
How I actually handled it
Several years ago, I was in Hawaii enjoying the beautiful weather, my beautiful wife, and a beautifully empty schedule.
I decided to check my email.
Phil had always been a bit of a loose cannon. Despite my best efforts to help him curb his occasional emotional outbursts, he decided my vacation was a good time to light me up in an email. Fortunately for him, I was in a good mood. (Of course I was; I was in Hawaii!) Still, it was tempting to write him a scathing response. Instead, I took my own advice and called him.
I explained to Phil that if I’d had a bad night of sleep, the flu or even a difficult day, he’d be looking for a new job. I tried to help him understand that because what he wrote was in black and white – with no inflection or non-verbals to guide me – I was free to interpret the email any way I wanted. I’m typically a forgiving guy, and it’s hard to offend me, but he was taking a dangerous risk.
I asked him about what he shared in the email. I gauged the issues he presented correctly, but he didn’t mean to be so offensive. Following our conversation, I’m confident he understood his mistake.
It’s important to help your staff understand that at the end of their message is a reader – a human being. Human beings interpret things. So if your employee wants a difficult message to be clear, they better share it when the recipient can read their body language, tone and intent. They’ll also be able to correct and respond in real time, which is impossible with an email.
What about you? How have you handled these issues? We’d LOVE to hear more about your successes and your failures. Let’s create a collaborative community of people that help each other and the people we lead. Leave your comments below!
Disclaimer: Because this post talks about what to do with issues that are prone to legalities (harassment, etc.), the above isn’t meant to constitute legal advice. Our desire is to give you some ideas of the first steps you should take when dealing with difficult situations.