How to Keep Hypotheticals From Burying You

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Sep 1, 2020
This article is part of a series called HR Communication Corner.

Suppose you’re in a staff meeting or rolling out a new policy in an all-hands meeting, and Rani, an employee, poses this question to you: 

“You say that you believe in testing and evaluating for skills, and that all our new training programs are going to include a pre- and post-test. Your plan on that last slide says you’re going to be rolling this program out to all the agents in the Atlanta Support Center. What if you put 500 people through the program in the next two months and half of them fail the post-test? Are you going to terminate those 250 agents to hire people who can pass?”

That’s a hypothetical question. If you answer it, you’re doomed to bury yourself in a pile of verbosity. Should you make that mistake, here’s likely how that conversation will unfold:

“No, of course not.”

“Well, you just said that acing that test is the new starting KPI,” Rani argues.

“That’s the goal, yes. But—“

“OK, let’s say 10% (50 agents) fail the post-test after going through the new program. That wouldn’t totally cripple the department. It would take the headcount down to 450. Is that a reasonable number of people to get the ax?” Rani’s tone edges higher. “Particularly when they got no training when they started. I got an email from a friend in Atlanta who said the test was extremely difficult. He said it didn’t seem customized for our industry. It’s just a generic test.” 

“How long has your friend been working there as an agent?”

“I don’t know. Five or 10 years or so. A long time. Long enough to know the job.”

“Did he say why he thought the test was so inappropriate? So unsuitable for the work they do, the clients we handle?”

“He didn’t say. But several others mentioned—“

If this likely scenario unfolds, your conversation has taken a bad twist on a good question. You’d be playing defense in a conversation that had little to nothing to do with your point or the policy you’re introducing. Responding incorrectly to hypothetical questions or hypothetical situations can paint you into a corner that will require the magician Houdini to extract you.

How to Respond to Hypothetical Questions or Situations

Here are three fundamental ways to stay on target with your message:

1. Sidestep details of the posed situation. 

“I don’t want to get bogged down in details about a hypothetical situation. But let me be clear about why the testing is so important and why we consider the test very appropriate for our Atlanta agents.”

2. Probe for and address the underlying issue.

“Thanks for the question. Let me talk about our criteria for continued employment. We do expect all the Atlanta agents to pass this test — even if they have to repeat the program a couple of times. That’s because we think this program aligns with our values and expectations. But that test is not the only criteria we use for continued employment. We also consider supervisors’ evaluations, attendance records, dedication to the job, ability to work with the team, and several other factors.” 

3. State directly that you don’t intend to respond to hypothetical questions. 

“I don’t like to respond to hypotheticals because there are too many variables from case to case that wouldn’t be applicable to everyone. But what I can tell you about the testing plans is that…“

Hypotheticals can bog down a discussion, confuse and bore listeners unfamiliar with the posed situation. They can also distract you from delivering your intended message clearly. Stay focused or you’ll be digging your way out of a conversation that drags on and on. 

This article is part of a series called HR Communication Corner.
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