Weekly Wrap: How Would You Deal With a Painfully Outspoken Employee?

Good talent management wisdom can be hard to find. That’s why I appreciate so much of the sound advice that Liz Ryan dispenses in her column over at Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

And this time, she’s hit on a particularly tricky problem: when a supervisor wants to get rid of a veteran, long-time employee simply because he’s outspoken and doesn’t hesitate to challenge managerial authority and say what’s on his mind.

The veteran employee in question does good work. In just about all aspects, he is the kind of person you would want as your employee. It’s just that he isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and frequently, this bothers his supervisor who sees this as a challenge to him rather than someone simply speaking what they believe to be the truth.

Putting a 48-year-old employee on probation?

It’s a great tale worth reading because it reminds me of so many managerial situations I’ve been through. You probably will think so, too. And the most important thing Liz points out here is how HR can be a positive influence to bring various parties together to resolve their differences for the greater good of the larger organization.

At one point in the scenario, the manager says he wants to put the longtime outspoken employee on probation, which just about everyone knows is usually just a short step from booting them out the door. As she described it in the BusinessWeek column:

“So, there’s a conflict, and we haven’t addressed the conflict in any concerted way, but we’re going to send Kevin packing because we can’t talk about the conflict and get past it?”

“I don’t want to fire Kevin right now,” said Josh. “I  want to put him on probation.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I said, “Kevin is 47 or 48 years old, he’s a senior engineer, and you’re going to put him on probation? Come on, this isn’t middle school. What good would that do? Your issue with Kevin isn’t a disciplinary thing — it’s two different points of view on how to run the business.” …

“He hasn’t insulted you,” I said. “He’s been vocal in his opposition to  your strategy, and in fact we have to give him big points for forthrightness. I mean, how often do employees disagree with the direction of the department and keep quiet about it? That’s by far the more common circumstance, right? Kevin is that internal questioner every company needs. He keeps us on our toes. Look at the amazing ideas he’s had, for product, marketing, everything — we can’t just say one day, ‘This time we don’t want to hear it’ and shut him up, right? I know Kevin is a pain at times, but where does his conviction come from? He cares about the company, for Pete’s sake. He wants us to thrive. That is gold. He’s a brilliant guy and he’s bringing his ideas and energy here. What are you going to do, Josh, swat him down because you’re his supervisor and you can? Is that the leadership brand you want to convey? ‘I allow no independent thought’?”

Managing through credibility and integrity

Sound like something that might have happened to you, no? Yes, people who constantly question us can be a pain in the rear, but you need people in the workplace who will stand up and challenge things, particularly if the people doing the challenging are doing it for the right reasons.

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And Liz Ryan ended her column with this piece of smart advice every HR and talent management pro should take to heart:

I tell the students in my MBA classes that they can manage people through the authority of the position — a fake, flimsy thing that someone else conferred on you and that every person alive on earth can see through in one second — or through their professional credibility and integrity. We get to choose one path or the other. When we open up a conversation to let a light into it, as Josh did with Kevin, rather than jumping into the frame of “I’m the manager and I can shut you up,” the whole system gets stronger and everybody’s “how can we work as a team?” muscles grow.

I hope that all human resources people and department managers have a few experiences like this one to remind them that it’s never the right answer to avoid leadership conversations such as the one Josh and Kevin needed to have. Conversation is sticky and time-consuming, but it sometimes leads to amazing breakthroughs. It strengthens relationships and teams and enables conflict resolution.”

As managers and talent management professionals, we should be all about fostering amazing breakthroughs like the one Liz Ryan describes. It’s simply part of our job description, whether it says so in writing or not.

Few holiday bonuses coming

Of course, there’s more than how to handle an outspoken employee in the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to

  • Blaming the jobless for the job crisis. Are the unemployed to blame for their job situation because they haven’t kept up their skills? We hear that a lot, and columnist Eric Wieffering explored this notion recently in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He writes: “Intuitively, the existence of a “skills gap” seems plausible and perhaps even obvious. Who doesn’t know a carpenter or laborer who lost his job when the housing market collapsed? And we have read the stories about assembly lines now manned by robots instead of men or women. But in this case, the numbers don’t back up the anecdotes. America’s economy isn’t suffering from the creation of too many high-skilled jobs. It’s creating too few jobs, period.”
  • A lack of year-end holiday bonuses. The Wall Street Journal reports that small businesses are still “too cash-strapped to give employees the same level of year-end raises and other holiday perks offered before the economic downturn.” And they add, “Only 29% of small-business owners are planning to give bonuses this holiday season, according to a survey … by American Express OPEN, the company’s small-business division. That is up slightly from last year, but still a big decrease from the 54% of small businesses that planned bonuses for the 2005 holidays. … (and) just 35% of small-business owners are expecting to host a holiday party—the lowest in the 10-year history of the survey.”
  • Want an ethical workplace? Make it childlike. Two researchers writing in The Christian Science Monitor say that “People behave better in front of children. They are less likely to swear and more likely to buy Girl Scout cookies and candles and gift cards for school drives. … Bizarre as it may sound, companies can harness this power to make their workplaces more ethical. (Our research) … suggests that the presence of children – even the presence of cute childlike things such as animation videos and stuffed toys – brings out good behavior in people. … (and) corporations can harness child power to make themselves more ethical.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.