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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. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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