“She’s Mean to Me!”

I recently taught a class to supervisors on improving employee behaviors and performance through coaching. Part of the class consisted of practice coaching sessions. I was a little surprised at the topic the class suggested for these sessions: coaching  employees who complain that others are mean to them, criticize them, or exclude them from the team.

I shouldn’t have been. Everyone who does HR related work recognizes that American workplaces are not that different from American high schools (junior highs?) in the way many employees interact with each other. There are cliques, popular and unpopular kids, teacher’s pets (or perceived favorites), and so on. These kinds of problems hurt productivity and drive management crazy. They also can lead to bullying and harassment complaints.

So what’s a supervisor or manager to do? First, you want to determine if it’s potentially a harassment complaint, i.e., the co-workers’ behaviors are allegedly motivated the complainant’s race, gender, religion, etc. Do not hesitate to just ask, “Why do you think X is doing that to you? Do you think it’s because of your [protected class status]? What makes you think that?” If it seems like it may be a harassment complaint, follow your policy and procedures.

Second, if you think there is actual bullying going on, you may need to step in and also investigate.  Coaching the target may or may not be an appropriate response. 

If you’re pretty sure it’s not a harassment complaint or real bullying, you can then move into coaching mode. Working with an employee on this type of issue can be very challenging, but it helps to keep a few basic supervisory goals and methods in mind:

  • First, to the extent possible, you want to help the employee solve the problem himself. You can provide coaching in the background, but it’s better to not intervene unless you decide after further discussion and thought that you need to either talk to the other person, facilitate a conversation between the two (or three, four, or more) parties, or both.
  • Second, you want to help the employee see how she may be contributing to the problem. It almost always takes two, and it’s not “blaming the victim” to explore the conversational “dance” that goes on between the complainant and the others and see where she may be affecting the outcome.
  • Third, you want to help the employee see beyond his interpretation of the other person’s behaviors and explore other possibilities. Did the other person really glare at the employee or was she having a attack of heartburn? “It may not be about you at all” is a helpful concept to explore.
  • Finally, you want to work with the employee to come up with an action plan, even if it’s just baby steps,  to build on what you discussed in the first meeting. You also want to schedule another meeting: at least three meetings total is a good goal.

In future columns, I’ll discuss a more specific coaching framework for this type of complaint as well as some of the challenges.  Coaching may seem too time consuming, but when it works, it’s an investment that is well worth the effort.  ~Amy Stephson

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