The Soft-Glove Reprimand Works Best
Q: I am a department head in charge of my own hiring. I am usually astute in choosing a person to hire, but my new assistant has a personality trait I did not detect. In the interview, she listened attentively and answered each question clearly and completely. She was bright and graduated from a good university.
We have several meetings each week. I am the head and lead the meetings with other department heads attending. I have my new assistant there to help her become familiar with the company and the job. The problem emerging is her aggressive and inappropriate behavior. When a department head poses a problem, my assistant jumps in and responds as if every comment at the meeting was addressed to her. She had done this in several meetings, so I can see this is a personality trait showing she does not adhere to any hierarchy. It seems narcissistic, as if she must be the star in every meeting.
I was taken aback when it first happened and thought it was due to nervousness. It is not. It is the way she is. I said nothing because 1) I did not want to shame or embarrass her; 2) I did not want to discourage her so early on in her employment; and 3) she is bright, and I think she has potential. Now I am stuck with what to do without her taking offense and clamming up and shutting down. She does not want my job; she does not have the experience needed, so that's not the problem. Help, please!
According to Paul Falcone, a chief human resources officer in Los Angeles and author of the bestselling "101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees: A Manager's Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges," it's not uncommon to interview a candidate who appears to have it all together only to learn during the onboarding period that there may be character or personality flaws that make it difficult for the relationship to work.
In the specific scenario above, there are three considerations. First, you've invited her to these meetings to help her become familiar with the company and senior leadership team. Falcone says that's a great idea, but you might want to stop inviting her because your original mission may have been accomplished by now. She is not a department head or a member of management, so your intention of familiarizing her with the company and its senior managers is now accomplished. No longer including her in the meetings may be the best move for you and for her.
Falcone further explains that if you permit her to continue attending, you may want to coach her through this in an effort to raise her awareness about how she may be coming across to others, including to you. Using the word "perception" is your best bet because it's a "safe-zone" word to discuss concerns without sounding judgmental or subjective. For example, try this type of clear but firm conversation:
"Sara (not her real name), I'd like to discuss something with you of which you may not be aware. I invited you to these meetings to observe and get to know the senior leadership team and learn about some of the challenges we're currently facing, not necessarily to participate or volunteer ideas when you are in the learning phase of the job. The meeting is for department heads to share thoughts and opinions, and this accommodation was for training and orientation purposes, not to add another voice to the conversation. Further, your approach appears to be a bit aggressive at times, and while I appreciate your passion and conviction about certain topics, these meetings are not the environment for you to offer business solutions. If you disagree with someone's point of view or have something to share, I would like you to discuss it with me privately rather than making a point to immediately voice your thoughts or suggestions in front of the entire team.
"We adhere to the rule that says, 'Praise in public; censure in private.' From a pure perception standpoint, you might be coming across as somewhat uninformed about matters you don't have full knowledge or understanding of, and we're all responsible for the perception we create in others' eyes. So, I'd ask you to reflect on how others might view your participation in the last two meetings when you immediately voiced some fairly strong opinions and suggestions. I'm happy to discuss any concerns you have after the meeting, but I ask you to defer to the senior leaders in the room. After all, it's their meeting. I will gladly listen to comments or questions you would like to discuss with me afterward."
Falcone says the soft-glove approach should help raise the individual's awareness about how she may be coming across to others, which is the goal of your coaching session.
Finally, if you reach a point where you feel that the individual's communication style is not a good fit with your culture, you're well within your rights to separate her employment while the relationship is still early. Much will depend on your state's recognition of employment at will and whether the new hire is covered by a collective bargaining agreement, but even union contracts typically include the right to terminate new hires during a defined probationary period without challenge. In short, don't invest tremendously in someone who might not have the core communication or interpersonal skills required of the job.
Email career and life coach: Lindsey@LindseyNovak.com with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit www.lindseynovak.com, and for past columns, see https://www.creators.com/features/at-work-lindsey-novak.