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Tough Talks: Having difficult conversations about delicate situations

May 21, 2014
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By Lori Moss

moss-lori.jpg Moss

No one relishes telling someone they aren’t pulling their weight, that they aren’t billing enough hours or aren’t winning enough cases. Those are hard conversations. Those conversations, however, typically involve issues that are black and white. You have facts and figures to back them up: Here is the company policy. You broke the policy. Here is the consequence.

What if it’s something that’s not in the employee handbook? What if you need to tell someone they aren’t dressing or behaving professionally? Those issues often fall into gray areas, leading to conversations that can be emotionally charged and uncomfortable. So, what do many lawyers do? Nothing. They hope the problem will go away.

It’s not going to go away. In fact, it’s going to fester, it’s going to affect other employees – if it hasn’t already – and it’s going to tarnish your reputation and negatively affect the firm’s bottom line.

People – regardless of the industry – avoid having tough conversations. They avoid them by trying to rationalize. Clients will tell me they haven’t had “the talk” because there just hasn’t been the right time, or the issue hasn’t affected his or her work.

I tell them to rock the boat today, because tomorrow or next week or next month, it’s going to rock the entire company. Here’s an example of an issue that was not easy to confront.

A group of employees often huddled in the break room giggling about a co-worker. He was relatively new to the firm, but already had shown he was talented, and he had good sales figures. He dressed professionally, and clients seemed to respect him. However, he was causing a stir among his co-workers because he had a tendency to – for lack of a better way of saying it – adjust himself. Not just once, but multiple times during the day. His boss noticed it, too, and wondered whether he was even conscious he was doing it. More importantly, she worried that his behavior eventually would affect his relationship with clients.

Talk about a tough conversation. But it had to be done. And, it needed to happen sooner rather than later because employees looked to the boss to deal with it.

Whether it’s talking to someone about their behavior, their dress or demeanor, here are tips to help you prepare and make the most of the difficult conversation.

Realize this isn’t just about the individual employee. It’s also about your reputation and the reputation of the firm. If you are willing to turn a blind eye on professionalism, you’ll lose respect with your employees, and you’ll also diminish the importance of professionalism within the firm.

Be a mentor. Approach conversations about professionalism as a caring mentor, someone who has the best interest of the employee at heart and who wants him to succeed.

Acknowledge it’s uncomfortable. When you set the stage, let the employee know you understand this is a delicate situation. The employee is likely to be less defensive.

Don’t get into a debate. The last thing you want is for the employee to get argumentative and defensive with comments such as “I can’t believe you’re even accusing me of not dressing professionally when there are so many bigger issues out there,” or, “Why am I being targeted when others are a lot more obnoxious in staff meetings than I am?”

Instead of a debate, you need to remind the employee that you want to help him or her improve because you value the work he or she is doing. Being more nurturing than directive will help defuse someone who feels attacked. But remember, you need to be sincere.

Don’t lecture. This needs to be a conversation between two professionals. Think of it as you giving advice to someone whom you value and care about. Consider how you’d prefer someone talk to you.

Lecture: You’ve got to stop interrupting people during client and staff meetings. It’s rude and unprofessional.

Advice: You’re so passionate about an idea that it often comes across to staff members and even clients that you’re interrupting. I know you don’t mean to be unprofessional or disrespectful, but it can be perceived that way. I bring this up because it’s an issue I’ve had to work on my whole career, and I wanted to share ways I’ve tried to overcome it.

Make it private. When scheduling the meeting, make sure it’s in a private, quiet location. No one wants to be overheard discussing issues about their professionalism or performance in public. Turn off your cell phone during the meeting, and make sure you’ve put the meeting on your calendar. Taking calls discounts the importance of the conversation and your employee isn’t going to take it as seriously. This is a serious matter that impacts your company and your employee’s career.

During the conversation, you should be able to assess – through the employee’s response and body language – whether he’s vested in his career or even vested in the firm. Depending on the issues, it may require a follow-up meeting so you can provide some additional feedback or just let the employee know you appreciate the work he or she has done to improve.•

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Lori Moss is owner of Professional Presence Pro and specializes in helping law firms develop and implement professionalism standards. She will be a featured presenter at the Indiana Bar Association Solo & Small Firm Conference June 5-7. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  2. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  3. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

  4. "...not those committed in the heat of an argument." If I ever see a man physically abusing a woman or a child and I'm close enough to intercede I will not ask him why he is abusing her/him. I will give him a split second to cease his attack and put his hands in the air while I call the police. If he continues, I will still call the police but to report, "Man down with a gunshot wound,"instead.

  5. And so the therapeutic state is weaonized. How soon until those with ideologies opposing the elite are disarmed in the name of mental health? If it can start anywhere it can start in the hoosiers' slavishly politically correct capital city.

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