Don’t know the reason, but I’ve been noticing a lot of conversation lately about speaking up, giving feedback and all-around “conflict is healthy” talk. While I agree with most – if not all – of the conversation, I find that any discussion about putting disagreement on the table usually comes with questions regarding the consequences of doing so.
Employees want to believe they can provide honest feedback but are worried something bad will happen as a result – maybe they would get a negative reference or have their hours cut. So, I wanted to take this concern to the streets and ask some business leaders for their insights.
And who could be better to discuss this workplace challenge than Alison Green, author of the very successful blog Ask a Manager. As the former chief of staff for a Washington D.C. based non-profit, Alison has that real-life, in-the-trenches manager expertise, so I posed the question “What would you say to an employee who is afraid they will be retaliated against?”
Good managers WANT to hear feedback, including critical feedback. Because good managers are so committed to identifying ways the organization can do better, they’re eager to get feedback and genuinely want to hear dissent. They don’t get defensive or shut out differing opinions. They’ll usually thank an employee for sharing complaints, and they really mean it. And the best ones will go out of their way to make employees feel safe about speaking up.
Now, if you have a bad manager, all of this goes out the window, and there’s little you can do about it.
So the key for employees is to know what kind of manager they’re dealing with — to observe how the manager deals with other employees, with bad news, with critical input — and to make decisions accordingly.
But the conversation about retaliation isn’t just at the employee level. I hear stories all the time from managers who need to discipline an employee but are concerned that, if they do, the employee will file a complaint about them – whether that’s to human resources or an outside agency. So I reached out to a couple more HR colleagues to get their take on this.
Steve Browne, executive director of human resources for LaRosa’s Inc., a Cincinnati based regional pizzeria, says managers need to understand “employees have the right to go to any agency they choose because they’re employees and you can’t stop them from doing that. However, to not discipline is a poor decision. If employees see someone who is ‘threatening’ getting away with poor behavior or performance, it will have more long-term effects than any action anyone says they’ll take. Supervisors who act in fear are like blood in the water to people who bully their way at work. Stand up to them and be consistent.”
Robin Schooling, SPHR, a vice president of human resources with over 20 years of HR management experience in various industries including health care, banking and manufacturing agrees.
When contemplating ANY type of corrective action, be thoughtful – ensure the corrective action you are contemplating is appropriate in relation to the employee’s knowledge of expected behavior and performance, company policies, applicable laws/regulations (i.e. any “protected activity”), and in accordance with company precedence for similarly situated employees. By following this evaluation step, you allow yourself the opportunity to evaluate the issue on its own merits – how would you handle it were you NOT thinking about the possibility of a complaint? I often maintain a written outline (word doc) of my decision points when contemplating a corrective action, which has proven to be very helpful when, months later, I need to recall how I moved from “Employee A’s Action” to “Decision to Discipline.”
So while we can calm the fears of our employees and offer advice to managers, the real key is creating a workplace that nurtures trust and open conversation. Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Work+Life Fit. Inc. and author of “Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You” suggests listening to your fear of retaliation and then testing it to make sure it’s based on fact. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you seen your manager retaliate against a colleague for asking for more flexibility? If the answer is no, then discuss your plan with your manager. If the answer is yes, you did see retaliation, then ask yourself, what were the circumstances?
- Was it retaliation or was there a legitimate question of performance that would make your manager hesitant to approve flexibility? If you think it was retaliation, then reconsider presenting your plan and start thinking about finding another job. If there were real problems with performance, then move forward to talk with your manager.
Cali offers some tips for presenting a plan that will get the most positive consideration over on her blog. Be sure to check it out here.
Being in a position to offer suggestions, feedback and constructive criticism is essential to your organization’s success. It’s important for companies to create a work environment that encourages open dialogue. Managers must feel confident in their roles by setting proper expectations and holding others accountable. Employees need to be encouraged to offer ideas and opinions that will make the organization a better place to work.
It’s time to move the retaliation conversation off the table, so the real work can begin.1