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Handling Workplace Retaliation

Handling Workplace Retaliation

Sharlyn Lauby | HR Bartender

June 22, 2010

Don’t know the reason, but I’ve been noticing a lot of conversation lately about speaking up, giving feedback and all-around “conflict is healthy” talk. While I agree with most — if not all — of the conversation, I find that any discussion about putting disagreement on the table usually comes with questions regarding the consequences of doing so.

Employees want to believe they can provide honest feedback but are worried something bad will happen as a result — maybe they would get a negative reference or have their hours cut. So, I wanted to take this concern to the streets and ask some business leaders for their insights.

And who could be better to discuss this workplace challenge than Alison Green, author of the very successful blog Ask a Manager. As the former chief of staff for a Washington D.C. based non-profit, Alison has that real-life, in-the-trenches manager expertise, so I posed the question “What would you say to an employee who is afraid they will be retaliated against?”

Good managers WANT to hear feedback, including critical feedback. Because good managers are so committed to identifying ways the organization can do better, they’re eager to get feedback and genuinely want to hear dissent. They don’t get defensive or shut out differing opinions. They’ll usually thank an employee for sharing complaints, and they really mean it. And the best ones will go out of their way to make employees feel safe about speaking up.

Now, if you have a bad manager, all of this goes out the window, and there’s little you can do about it.

So the key for employees is to know what kind of manager they’re dealing with — to observe how the manager deals with other employees, with bad news, with critical input — and to make decisions accordingly.

But the conversation about retaliation isn’t just at the employee level. I hear stories all the time from managers who need to discipline an employee but are concerned that, if they do, the employee will file a complaint about them — whether that’s to human resources or an outside agency. So I reached out to a couple more HR colleagues to get their take on this.

Steve Browne, executive director of human resources for LaRosa’s Inc., a Cincinnati based regional pizzeria, says managers need to understand "employees have the right to go to any agency they choose because they’re employees and you can’t stop them from doing that. However, to not discipline is a poor decision. If employees see someone who is ‘threatening’ getting away with poor behavior or performance, it will have more long-term effects than any action anyone says they’ll take. Supervisors who act in fear are like blood in the water to people who bully their way at work. Stand up to them and be consistent.”

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