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Managing Emotional Reactions

Managing Employees' Emotional Reactions

[Depending on the circumstance], an employee may respond with one or more emotional reactions. Here are some tips for effectively managing your response to some of the more common emotional reactions.


Sometimes an employee may become angry when confronted with counseling on performance deficiencies. Your reaction can help de-escalate that emotion. Don’t get drawn into the moment; watch the pace, pitch, and volume of your own voice (PPV). The PPV of an angry person’s voice usually increases; they speak faster, at a higher pitch, and louder. Sometimes it can help to de-escalate this emotional reaction by doing just the opposite. Reduce the PPV of your own voice. Respond in a slow, low, and quiet tone of voice, such that the person may have to actually pause in his own frenetic pace of speech to listen to you. In that moment, you may recapture the person’s attention and invite the person to take a break from the conversation and begin again in a few minutes or perhaps even in a few hours or the next day. At this point, the emotion may override any productivity that could be derived from the meeting. How effective can you be when the person is focused on his own anger? Give the person time to return to a calm state before reengaging him in the conversation. On another note, keep yourself safe.

Denial or Blaming

Have you ever counseled an employee only to hear him accept no responsibility and state that the fault is not his but someone else’s? As mentioned above, sometimes we may be compelled to tell the person that we are not there to discuss a coworker but to discuss this employee’s performance. But if a coworker really is the source of a problem, the employee may hear that you are brushing off his very valid complaint. It may be appropriate to tell the employee that you will address those concerns momentarily and to then ask, before you do so, what responsibility this employee has, if any, for the concerns you have shared with him. For example, you might ask, “I understand your concern and we can talk about that in a moment. Before we do, let me ask first, what could you have done differently in this situation to have avoided this problem?” That question may help keep the conversation focused on this employee before getting side tracked to other issues. The other reported issues, however, should be addressed so you can determine whether or not they are valid concerns.

Humorist Josh Billings said, “Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute.” And isn’t this the truth? How do you engage an employee in a productive conversation when all he does is nod, shrug, and give an occasional, “I dunno.” You have probably heard about open-versus closed-ended questions. Here is a great time to try using open-ended questions. Rather than asking questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no,” ask questions that require a descriptive response. For example, a common question as we wrap up a meeting with an employee may be to ask, “Do you have any questions?” What does the employee almost always say? “No.” Or you might ask, “Do you understand what I’m asking?” And, again, you get the closed-ended response, “Yes.” But do you really know that the employee understands your expectations? An open-ended method for asking the same question would be to ask, “OK, just before wrap up, tell me what you understand my expectation to be.” This cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” but requires the employee to repeat what he understands you want him to do. If you still get silence or a shrug, then you have the opportunity to again share the expectation and then ask the employee again, in an open-ended way, to tell you what he understands the expectation to be.

Another strategy for overcoming silence can be to offer the employee the opportunity to share his thoughts in writing. Some people just are not good orators; they are not comfortable telling you what is bothering them but could do so in writing. You might offer the employee the opportunity to think about what you have shared overnight and provide you with a written response the next day or by the end of the week.


Whether they are crocodile tears or real tears, this emotional reaction can be awkward to manage. First tip: always have a box of tissues in your office. There are few moments more awkward than when a tearful employee has no recourse but to wipe his nose on his sleeve. Keep the tissue box on your desk, rather than in a drawer, so the employee can take one rather than having to ask for one. Like managing anger, it may also be best to give the employee 5 to 10 minutes to collect himself and then return to the conversation. The question here may be where do you or the employee go during this interim period? That depends upon your office location as well as what is in your office. If you are an HR administrator with confidential files in your office that are unlocked, it may be best to invite the employee to step out and get a drink of water and return rather than leaving the employee alone in your office with access to files. On the other hand, if your office is in a highly trafficked hallway, telling the person to step out into a public area for all to see that he has been crying might not be wise either. Give these points consideration; you may decide that a meeting is best held in a neutral area such as a small conference room or vacant office space. That way, if a break is needed, you can tell the employee that you will step out, give the employee time to compose himself, and then return to continue the meeting.

Tears may also indicate that the employee is dealing with an issue unrelated to work that is personal in nature. If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP), this is a wonderful opportunity to remind the employee of this confidential resource if they need or would like someone else to talk to about work or personal matters that may be impacting work performance. Why do I say confidential? Remember that your EAP counselor is usually either a licensed social worker (LSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). That license gives the counselor a legal veil of confidentiality such that what the employee tells that counselor (barring a threat to self or others) is truly confidential. The EAP counselor may not disclose the information shared by the employee with the employer without the employee’s consent. You, however, cannot provide an employee with absolute confidentiality. If you do refer an employee to the EAP, put a note on your calendar to follow up with the employee in a week or two. Tell the employee that you will do so, and then check in with the employee to see how things are going.

Tread lightly, however, when referring an employee to the EAP. Don’t let this offer create an opportunity for the employee to then disclose to you personal information that could later be used against you, such as disclosing that he is caring for a family member with a disability and is having trouble managing the related stress (the association provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act may now apply). If the employee does begin to disclose personal information, it may be best to redirect the conversation. Tell the employee that personal matters are best shared with the EAP counselor and the time you spend with the employee is best used to focus on performance issues.


This pattern of behavior may be less gently referred to as being two-faced. This behavior is demonstrated by the employee who is very reticent, polite, and apologetic in your presence, indicating he is sorry and will do better moving forward. After the employee leaves your office, however, you begin to hear from coworkers that he is complaining about you and the company, unfair treatment, and generally bad-mouthing the organization. What do you do? Ask the employee about it. You may simply tell him that it has come to your attention that he may be complaining about you or the company. Can you guess what the employee’s first question often is? That’s right, “Who told you that?” There is no need to disclose that to the employee. Notice that I indicated you would tell the employee that it has come to your attention that he “may be” complaining. You may simply tell him that who told you is not important; what is important is that he understands that such behavior is not acceptable. Remind the employee of the company’s appropriate resources for expressing concerns (e.g., the employee’s supervisor, human resources, EAP, confidential hotline). Then advise the employee that if you continue to receive such reports and you find that he is, in fact, engaging in such behavior, it may result in corrective action. Let him know that venting to coworkers and contaminating workplace morale is not acceptable. Here’s another common question: “But doesn’t that violate the employee’s right to freedom of speech?” Remember that freedom of speech is a constitutional matter applicable only to the public sector or government employers, not the private sector. And for those of you reading this book and who work in the public sector, even the U.S. Supreme Court has held, “The first amendment does not require a public office to be run as a roundtable for employee complaints over internal office affairs.”

Excerpted from Christine V. Walters, From Hello to Goodbye: Proactive Tips for Maintaining Positive Employee Relations (SHRM, 2011).


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