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Dealing with the emotional employee

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Crystal Spraggins, SPHR

What would you do if you criticized an employee’s performance, and she cried? What about if she got angry and raised her voice or became sarcastic and hostile?

How would you handle a complaint about a manager who screams or throws things?

(Yes, it happens. I once knew a manager who’d get disgusted about work—and granted, he had a crappy job and a crappy employer—and then throw large stacks of book galleys on the floor with a loud thud to show it.)

Learning to self-regulate, or control one’s emotions, is very important to career success. Even the hottest hotheads in leadership get there only after learning to hide (okay, manage) their tempers when necessary.

However, some people have an easier time of it than others. So what should you do when it’s your turn to counsel the emotional employee?

Here are a few tips.

Take a breath 

It’s good to get a handle on your own emotions before approaching someone else about hers.

Whether you’re now standing face-to-face with an employee in the middle of a meltdown or have been tasked with initiating a little heart-to-heart after the fact, you’ll need to inventory your own feelings first and control any anger or exasperation you may be feeling about the employee’s words or the mere fact that you have to deal with this issue when you’d rather be doing something (anything) else.

Be sympathetic

Perhaps there are good reasons for your employee to be angry, frustrated, overwhelmed or whatever it is that’s prompting the emotional reaction. If you can relate don’t be afraid to say so while still affirming the employee’s responsibility to manage his behavior.

“John, I know Bill in Marketing is difficult to work with, but you can’t yell to get your point across. Yelling at coworkers is not in keeping with our company values of respect, and it’s ineffective as well.”

Keep it brief

At the same time you want to express sympathy, you also want to keep the conversation short and to the point. You’re not the employee’s counselor, parent, or spiritual advisor, and there’s no reason to spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing his emotional issues.

Tell the employee why you’re meeting with him, provide examples of the offending behavior, state the consequences of not changing the behavior, and then ask if there are any questions. If yes, answer them. If no, meeting adjourned.

Tell the truth

If …

  • The employee’s outbursts have caused her coworkers to label her a bully, or
  • The employee is commonly perceived as the office brat, or
  • The employee’s direct reports are complaining that her “management style” interferes with work, or
  • You’re ready to effect some sort of discipline if the employee can’t get his emotions under control…

Say so.

The employee needs to understand the consequences of not managing his emotions, and telling him clearly and without equivocation is the responsible and fair thing to do.

Provide resources

If the employee’s failure to get a hold of her emotions is causing serious conflict in the company, don’t hesitate to remind her of any benefits the organization may offer that could provide help.

Do you have an employee assistance program (EAP)? Does your health insurance cover mental health issues? To keep on the right side of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), refrain from “diagnosing” the employee and instead simply point out that her behavior is causing problems at work, and you need the behavior to change. Then you can remind the employee of any company resources that could help her with behavior modification. (By the way, don’t hesitate to run the situation by your attorney if need be.)

Listen, we all have emotions, and we all experience emotional reactions to stimuli, because we’re human.

However, being human is no excuse for not minding your reactions. In fact, if we’re to peaceably and productively coexist in the workplace, we must.

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