Addressing Policy Issues with a Direct Report

In case you couldn’t guess what month it is, just walk into any major retail store. The arrival of spooky, creepy, and haunting decor is the hallmark of the month of October in the United States. Halloween reminds us that there are scary elements to this world and the worlds beyond.

So, what better time to talk about one of the scariest things you may have to do this Halloween season – engage an employee in a policy discussion! EEK!

If you’re in a leadership role, talking to your employees about policy issues such as hygiene, dress code, poor work performance etc. comes with the territory. When it comes to sharing this news, there is an effective way to handle the situation… and a not so effective way. While there are many versions of effective and (especially) ineffective, the framework of these two scenarios remains relatively static.

In one scenario, the tools of enacting a tough conversation are implemented (Hint: effective).

In the other, they aren’t- it’s really that simple (Hint: ineffective).

Taking the “Boo!” Out of Feedback

When you are delivering feedback to a direct report, especially if it’s negative, it’s best not to shock them with the news. Most people don’t enjoy having these conversations, much less feeling as though they are out of the blue. Base your approach on the severity of the infraction and the specific employee.

For example, if a high performer with little to no mishaps comes in wearing jeans when they should be wearing slacks, there is no need to make a big production of it. This employee rarely, if ever, does anything against policy and may have just had a brain fart that morning. Instead of saying,

“I can’t believe you would think that’s okay, I don’t know how many times we’ve told you people jeans are not okay in the office…”,

try approaching it by saying

“I noticed that you were wearing jeans today. We only allow jeans on Fridays, and you are usually in compliance with our dress code. What makes today different for you?”

You never know, there could have been a major life event attached to those jeans that perfectly explains the issue. If the same employee repeats the behavior, then you can take a more stern approach – this is an official warning. That way, if they continue the behavior, your warnings will have escalated in a manner that won’t be surprising to that employee when the warning turns into action. Remember, you don’t want to scare your employees off; you need them to come into work tomorrow.

When the Impending Conversation Scares You

Sometimes these conversations aren’t that easy. Sometimes the conversation seems so difficult and impossible, you end up turning it into a battle between you and the boogie man. Take a deep breath and remember, the boogie man isn’t real if you don’t believe in him. There is an art to approaching crucial conversations, and it is far from impossible.

Perhaps everyone’s least favorite conversation to have is the hygiene one. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, and let’s face it, scary! If the idea of having this conversation with an employee scares you, be aware that it is probably scary to them. Because you don’t know the reason for the issue, it’s best to approach it gently. Beginning the conversation with positive reinforcement about the value they add to the team and the company is a good way to start. Be sure you don’t point fingers at who is complaining; instead, try

“I would like to review the dress code and hygiene policy with you, as it has come to my attention that may be beneficial for you and the team.”

Don’t be too vague though – if there is a specific area they need to work on, be sure to emphasize that in a professional and tactful manner. Perhaps you could print out that section in the employee handbook and highlight the areas they need improvement on. Always refer back to company policy as it will make the conversation more professional and won’t leave the person feeling as though it’s a personal attack against them. If your company has resources to aid in the issue (each will be different), you should offer them to first time offenders.

It also helps to tell them what you want. In other words, what are your motives in having the conversation. This is good practice for you regardless; if you check your motives and they aren’t above the line (i.e. placing blame, being right, saving face), then reset them. If you aren’t clear, your employee could leave with a story that you think they’re “gross” or you’re “insensitive” etc. Say up front,

“As a leader, I want to create an environment where both you and your team can be wildly successful. All company policies are an important part of that.”

Keep your motives in check and express them clearly to mitigate too much conspiracy theory brainstorming on your employee’s part. It gives you something to go back to should the conversation derail - in this case, it always goes back to creating an environment where your team can be most successful and policy is just your standing ground.

The Fright of the Repeat Offender

Every manager everywhere has had to deal with a repeat offender. Regardless of whether the topic is punctuality or using appropriate language, it’s important that your message is clear, direct, and has a no “BS” attitude behind it (aka Kind Candor). That doesn’t mean you need to be intimidating or that all of your professionalism gets to go out of the window. What it does mean is that you need to take responsibility for getting that person back on track.

In order to do that, you have to be clear about:

  • What the expectations are,
  • Where the gaps are,
  • How they can improve, and
  • What the consequences will be if they do not.

Giving people a follow up date for conversation is also an effective tool. This gives people a specific window of time to get their act together, as well as providing you with a timeline in which to take action. In fact, you should leave all meetings knowing who will do what by when.

And don’t forget, you HAVE TO TAKE ACTION!

It’s critical for you to be your word and follow up with the consequences you’ve set up. A lack of follow through on your part encourages the bad behavior and tells the offender you aren’t serious. When it’s time for the follow up, be as clear and direct about their progress as you were before. Remaining consistent gives you ground to stand on should the ultimate consequence come into play.

Trick or Treat?

Addressing an employee who doesn’t follow policy doesn’t have to be so frightening. Go in with a plan of attack and don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume you know everything that’s going on, and don’t assume they understood everything you said. Be clear, be direct, be professional, and remember to act and follow-up. Most people will rise to the occasion, and you will find these conversations to be more of a treat than a trick.

Happy Halloween!

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