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Are you really listening to your employees?

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Do you always show that you are listening to your people’s problems? Listening skills are paramount among HR, especially when it comes to formal grievance and disciplinary procedures.

19th Jan 2023
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When employees don’t feel like they’re being listened to, they turn up the volume on their grievances. They’ll try the most obvious route and talk to their line manager or HR. But when it comes to personal situations and complex accusations, the instinctive response of managers is to avoid difficult conversations, downplay issues and escape from the threat of confrontation.

Start listening and find a solution

To the employee, it looks like reticence and disinterest and there can seem to be no other option but to make a formal complaint. Minor concerns and solvable issues can turn quickly into breakdowns in relationships and slide into employment tribunals.

Conversations that provide a basis for a resolution, more understanding and clarity, will begin to loosen rigid positions

Listening to employees matters more than ever before. In the 1980s there were 20 employment rights under which an employee could make a tribunal claim; now there are more than 60. The removal of tribunal fees by the Supreme Court in 2017 has already led to a sharp rise in cases – the number of claims doubled in some regions of the UK in the first three months according to the National User Group of Employment Tribunals.

1. Offer mediation

Being able to offer mediation early on – involving someone independent to support the conflicting parties in finding an agreement and reconciliation  – allows confidential conversations to begin without the need to resort to the more formal grievance and disciplinary processes. Conversations that provide a basis for a resolution, more understanding and clarity, will begin to loosen rigid positions – and build trust in you as an employer.

Employers benefit most of all from having an established service that people can turn to as the standard, informal route. Mediation then becomes part of the culture, commonly used and trusted, with nothing remarkable or uncomfortable about it – for either individual staff or line managers. Less and less management time is needed; issues are picked up and dealt with early.

2. Guarantee professionalism

Don’t make the mistake of using untrained managers as mediators. Experienced managers in an organisation can often assume they know best - they know the people, and the situation – and don’t listen with an open mind. Instead, they make assumptions and want to get to a black-and-white resolution as soon as possible.

Without training, in-house mediators struggle to deal with sensitive situations, take feelings into account, and only want to work with clear facts. In many disagreements, indisputable facts may be hard to come by.

There has to be trust in the mediator – not only in their training and professional expertise – but in their impartiality. There can be no suspicion of connections or sympathies that make them unable to step back from a situation, or that prompt any kind of doubt in the minds of employees involved in the mediation conversation.

For serious grievance cases, it’s critical that employers can demonstrate that they have taken a professional approach

3. Make space for conversations

Managers need to structure their communications and relationships with staff in ways that provide an important element of time, to mitigate knee-jerk reactions and voicing of instant opinions. That’s why the face-to-face method needs to be used as much as possible.

They provide a useful series of pauses to arrange and set up and deliver, ensuring time for reflection and a context where thought and behaviour will be different. And in support of this approach, there needs to be work done on ensuring people understand that face-to-face doesn’t just mean bad news.

Conversations only improve when they are a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event - being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of staff in terms of open conversations – and make it clear about support and development available; encourage senior managers and leaders to be role models and put more time and resources into supporting people to move towards dialogue with each other and away from escalating their negative feelings.

4. Investigate properly

For serious grievance cases, it’s critical that employers can demonstrate that they have taken a professional approach. That means having a system in place that conforms with legislation and best practice, and the capability - either through trained staff internally or external support – to carry out watertight investigations, that isn’t going to lead to further challenges and disputes.

Like mediations, when an employer has an established investigation service in place – even though it’s only used rarely and for the most complex and sensitive cases – it’s reassurance for employees. They know they can speak out when they have to; there’s a well-managed pathway for dealing with any problem that’s affecting their ability to do their job.

The best working environments are based on good conversations

5. Build your ‘conversational intelligence’

The best working environments are based on good conversations. Inevitable workplace disagreements and differences in opinion and personality are dealt with lightly, through open conversations that are based on trust. To reach this stage, managers and staff need better conversational intelligence skills – which can be learnt and practised – until no one should ever feel as if their problems are unimportant or unsolvable, there’s always a constructive way to reach a resolution.

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