The Prodigal Altar Boy

Monday, August 2, 2010

CASE STUDY - Delivering Bad News Tactfully and Effectively

This is the COM 480 assignment for week 3 of the class.  Enjoy and we’ll get to some more posting later in the week.  Thanks for tuning in.

CASE STUDY - Delivering Bad News Tactfully and Effectively

“You are a department manager in a mid-sized company that provides technology support services.  You have ten employees who are required to maintain a high level of technical expertise and deliver excellent customer service.  One of your employees, who has been with the company for two years, is performing at a substandard level and you have received numerous complaints from customers and coworkers.  In addition, this employee has displayed confrontational behavior which has created a hostile environment.  You must now meet with this employee and deliver an ultimatum regarding the need for immediate improvement or dismissal.”

Prior to the meeting, I will gather all documentation concerning this employee.  Besides performance evaluations for the past two years, I would request all documented customer complaints and any HR documentation of the confrontational behavior.  I would also request a list of the employee’s duties and performance objectives as well.
Preparation by reviewing all documentation serves several purposes.  First, it is a sanity check to ensure the organization has clear performance standards for employees.  Without clearly defined objectives the employee acknowledges, any assessment of performance becomes subjective.  Personnel actions based on subjective measurement of performance exposes the organization to legal liability.  Second, documentation of customer complaints serves the dual purpose of ensuring first line supervisors are doing their job in documenting the customer implications of substandard performance as well as identifying specific areas the employee needs to improve.  Personnel/Human Resource (HR) records of confrontational  behavior, especially leading to a hostile work environment not only prepares me for the likely range of behaviors I might encounter, but also documents any and all action taken in response to such behavior.  Finally, having this documentation on hand provides specific incidents to address during the discussion.

After gathering the required documentation, I would review the customer reports for specific complaints.  Are there wide ranges of complaints, or do the complaints cluster around a handful of issues?  I would also contact the customer service department to track any follow-up on the complaints.  I would use this information to gauge how much additional work is required to correct the employee’s mistakes.  In addition, what feedback has customer service give to the employee, either directly or through a supervisor?  What remedial training, if any has the employee done because of the customer service feedback?
How much of the customer feedback has been incorporated into the employee’s performance appraisal?  Did any of the appraisals that mention the negative customer feedback lead to a performance improvement plan for the employee?  If there was an improvement plan, who was responsible for tracking the employee’s progress on the plan, and what were the results?
In the HR documentation, I am looking for all incidents of confrontation/harassment, including disciplinary actions taken.  Were there any warnings/reprimands documenting confrontational behavior?  If so, what were the recommendations?  Was the employee referred to an anger management class or counseled the confrontational behavior contributed to a hostile work environment?  Were there any EEO complaints of a hostile work environment based on the employee’s behavior?

Supervisor, Co-Worker and HR Interviews
After assessing the documentation collected, I would interview the employee’s supervisor as well as co-workers.  I would interview the supervisor to characterize the situation.  We would review evaluation records as well as documented incidents to ensure the documentation is complete and accurate.  If there were a performance improvement plan in place, I would discuss it with the supervisor to get a sense of employee progress on the plan.  Finally, I would ask the supervisor to characterize the employee’s behavior, whether the two of them had discussed it, and the result of those conversations.  Next, I would interview co-workers, focusing on behaviors contributing to a hostile work environment.  I would tell the co-workers the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) defines hostile work environment as harassing conduct (behavior that can reasonably be considered to adversely affect the work environment), so pervasive and offensive it constitutes a hostile environment (U.S. Equal Employmnet Opportunity Commission, 1996).  Finally, I would talk with HR, to explain my findings, and learn what my responsibilities and limitations are in the planned discussion, as well as the rights and responsibilities of the employee.  I would also ask an HR representative be present for the interview.

Employee Interview
At the interview, I would introduce myself, the HR representative and explain the interview is to discuss performance issues.  Anticipating  the employee may try to bully me and take control of the meeting, if the employee objected to the topic or tried to change the subject, I would respectfully ask I be allowed to speak and after the issues are laid out, the employee will have a chance to respond.

Issue - Substandard Performance
Assuming there is adequate documentation for substandard performance, I would review the employee’s performance appraisals for the past two years.  I would point out the deficiencies noted in the appraisal, and any corrective action taken.  I would ask the employee if he agreed with the evaluations.  I would expect at this point the employee might acknowledge signing the evaluations, but would allege the evaluation was unfair, either because, “That supervisor doesn’t like me,” or “my co-workers don’t like me.”  In that case, I would focus on those allegations, and move the issue from the intangible to tangible specific incidents that support his allegations  (Cahn & Abigail, 2007, p. 33).  If the employee failed to provide specifics to support the allegations, we would move on to customer complaints.  If the employee became confrontational, I would calmly go over the issues raised by the performance evaluations and discuss each point.  For each issue I would ask the employee, “Is that a fair assessment?”  I would take each answer avoiding responsibility and reframe it in a way the employee takes responsibility (CDR Associates, 1996, p. 3) (Cahn & Abigail, 2007, p. 107).

Issue - Customer Complaints
If possible, I would connect specific deficiencies from the performance evaluation with the customer complaints.  I want to show the employee how a deficiency identified in the performance evaluation led to a customer complaint.  I would use my customer service documentation to show the extra resources (person-hours, customer accommodation costs, etc.) required because of that deficiency.  I would explain how performance issues identified in the evaluation caused the organization to lose money and customer goodwill, making everyone’s job harder (Shockley-Zalabak, 2009, p. 311).  After going through all of the customer complaints, I will ask if the complaints are accurate.  Again, I would re-frame any intangible or responsibility-avoiding characterizations of the complaint in tangible language accepting responsibility.

Issue - Hostile Work Environment
Next, we will discuss the employee’s confrontational behavior and the effect it has on the workplace.  First, I will go over any official disciplinary actions taken by HR or the supervisor.  We will examine the details of each report and discuss the events.  I anticipate this portion of the interview will involve a great deal of re-framing.  Because behavior can be subjective, I will couch the confrontational behavior in terms of modified I-statements (Cahn & Abigail, 2007, p. 105).  For example, “When you get right up in a co-worker’s face and yell, it makes them feel…”  I will explain that while confrontation can be part of a positive process to resolve conflict (Cahn & Abigail, 2007, p. 96), when that assertiveness turns hostile and attacks the self-esteem of co-workers, the employee risks damaging the relationship with the co-workers (Seiter & Gass, 2004, p. 113).   While risky, I will summarize the general feelings the co-workers have about the employee.  If the employee reacts with intangible assertions, I will phrase their feelings in I-statements.  My intent is to open the employee’s eyes to how his co-workers feel and the tension the employee brings to the workplace.  I will link co-worker characterizations to the EEOC definition of harassment and explain how harassment can lead to a hostile work environment.  I will ask the HR representative to explain the law on hostile work environment, particularly how the organization could be liable for the employee’s harassing actions unless the organization takes steps to prevent and correct such behavior (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1999).

Employee Decisions
At this point, I would ask the employee if they wish to continue employment with the organization.  While I expect a confrontational reaction, my aim is to find the employee’s substantive interest (CDR Associates, 1996, p. 25).  If the employee wishes to continue employment with the organization, what steps are they willing to take to address performance issues, customer and co-worker complaints?  If the employee is willing to try, we will have an action plan on hand, ready for the employee to sign.  The plan will have goals and milestones for each of the issues, with a follow-up in 30 days to note improvements.  If the employee does not improve, HR will begin termination.  If the employee refuses to commit to an improvement plan, HR will start the termination process.  I will ask the employee if there are any questions and ask for a decision on the spot.

I spent a lot of time on the preparation for the interview, and my rationale was preparation is the key portion of any interview.  Unless you can establish the organization actually has performance standards and supervisors use those standards to rate employees, any assessment of substandard performance becomes subjective and exposes the organization legally.  Lining up all the documentation is a tool to counterbalance confrontational behavior.  You can argue subjective points, but documentation, especially documentation (such as performance evaluations) where both parties acknowledge the rating, are hard to argue.  I purposely started with the evaluations because they were less difficult to refute.  Starting with the less difficult issues let me build up a habit of agreement within the interview  (CDR Associates, 1996, p. 29), and gain momentum as we tackled the more difficult issues.



Cahn, D. D., & Abigail, A. R. (2007). Managing Conflict Through Communication. New York: Pearson Education, Inc.
CDR Associates. (1996). Mediating Workplace Disputes. Boulder: CDR Associates.
Seiter, J. S., & Gass, R. H. (2004). Perspectives on Persuasion, Social Influence, and Compliance Gaining. Boston, MA, USA: Pearson.
Shockley-Zalabak, P. S. (2009). Fundamentals of Organizational Communication Knowledge, Sensitivity, Skills, Values (7th ed.). Boston, MA, U.S.A.: Pearson Education, Inc.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (1999, June 18). Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors. Retrieved August 2, 2010, from EEOC.GOV:
U.S. Equal Employmnet Opportunity Commission. (1996, November). PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT Chapter 700 - HARASSING CONDUCT IN THE WORKPLACE. Retrieved August 2, 2010, from EEOC.GOV: