As an HR consultant and educator within the HR profession, I am often asked this question, “How do I deal with difficult managers?”   When I ask for more detail, I usually get about the same response:  “Well, managers just don’t ‘get it’ when I tell them they don’t have enough documentation to fire an employee…or when I let them know an employee has made a complaint about them.  They want to defend their position, like they’re defending battle ground…it’s exhausting!”

Well, I have a few responses for how to deal with difficult managers.  For starters, HR sometimes invites conflict by failing to have established a good relationship with managers (aka “Ops” kind of managers) in the first place.  The time to build relationships with managers is before an employee or organizational issue crops up.  So, how do you build that relationship?  For starters, invite managers to join you for a cup of coffee to “talk shop” and to understand their challenges.  If HR reaches out to learn how it can be a better internal consultant and adviser, a more cordial and collaborative relationship will ensue.   Also, help them to understand your role a bit more, as it relates to employee relations issues.  Often, role ambiguity exists around employee relations issues, with managers not knowing “who handles what” regarding issues.  If you clarify that your role is to handle issues relating to policies and procedures–and their role is to handle departmental issues (even employee behavioral issues) then you’re on the road to minimizing conflict.  By clarifying roles and responsibilities, that alone can help a great deal.

So, let’s say you’ve done that–and you’re still dealing with “Manager Bob” who is frustrated with you over something like an employee disciplinary issue.  Your position is that policy and past practice dictate that you err on the side of caution and not move forward with terminating “Fred” the employee.  However, Bob’s position is that Fred is a lousy employee and needs to go.  You’ve reached somewhat of an impasse–and it’s getting ugly.  How to handle that?

The first step is in acknowledging Bob’s frustration:  “Bob, look…I understand that you feel Fred needs to go.  I can tell you are very passionate about this, and I get that he is not a stellar performer.  From my perspective, and very much a risk management perspective, we will be stepping on a legal landmine if we were to move to termination too prematurely.  We are better off taking another 30-60 days to document his poor performance–and then move to termination.  He’s been written up for attendance and tardiness–but not for below expectations performance.  If we move to terminate now, we will be deviating from our normal disciplinary practice.  That can lead to claims of discrimination, which can be very costly.”

Now, there may be a bazillion other issues surrounding Fred’s performance issue.  For the purposes of helping you understand what to do, here, don’t get hung up on the decision-making… Focus on the word choices I just used to address the conflict itself:  “From my perspective…”  “From my risk management perspective…”  “If we…then…X will happen.”

The idea is to put the problem on the other side of the fence, so to speak, and work on it more collaboratively.  Too often, employee issues or interpretation of policy issues turn into World War III between HR and Leadership teams.  You’re both on the same side, and it’s important to address that.  Often, by framing the issue as a problem that you both must solve, it then requires that you work together to find a solution.  If Bob just isn’t satisfied with your “perspective” and wants to go over your head and somewhat amplify the conflict, then so be it.  Let Bob go over your head.  However, what you need is a supportive boss in HR who will share your perspective on the issue. (Hopefully, you briefed him/her on the Bob issue…)

Part of the process in dealing with difficult managers is actually “sticking to your guns” sometimes.  It’s a weird dynamic, but sometimes by being somewhat of a worthy adversary, you actually gain respect from operations people.  If you are too wishy-washy in your decision-making and you simply acquiesce to Bob, by saying something like, “Well, Bob, if you want to go ahead and fire Fred, I suppose I don’t have any way to stop you.  All I can tell you is that it is a risky termination…”   This is called “Yielding” behavior in a Conflict workshop I teach, which is a word for “caving in.”

It’s one thing to explore a different outcome with an employee relations issue, but it is entirely another to just cave in to meet whatever the manager demands.  If you continue to do that, it will weaken your position in HR or Employee Relations.   Remember, not all conflict is bad.  Having a healthy debate with a leader is a good thing.  What you have to remember is to maintain your composure, use good conflict competencies, and avoid getting argumentative.  Put the problem “on the other side of the fence” and work on it together.

Until next time…


Natalie Ivey is President & CEO of Results Performance Consulting, Inc. (RPC) in Boca Raton, FL.  Ms. Ivey is an HR consultant and educator within the HR profession and routinely facilitate HR certification programs and consults with organizations to improve their leadership behavior, employee relations, and organizational performance.

Published On: June 16th, 2017 / Categories: Blog /

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