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Budgets, Performance Reviews Make Workplaces Ripe for Hostility

How to keep tempers in check during touchy start-of-year tasks

A man and woman are looking at a laptop in an office.

​The end of one year and the start of another bring tasks that can cause friction in any workplace: Managers may have to deliver bad news to employees during performance reviews; department heads may need to explain why they overspent a budget, or quibble about dividing the new budget; and workers may grow angry about the size of their bonus or salary increase.

All these conversations can be breeding grounds for hostility, finger-pointing, defensiveness and more. And stress left over from the holidays can compound people's emotions when they approach touchy subjects at work, said Norbert "Bert" Alicea, vice president of employee assistance programs and work/life services at benefits solutions firm Health Advocate Inc., based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

"The holidays can bring long-term issues to the surface," he said. "They can create stress, anxiety and depression among [some] employees. The combination of both professional and personal stress can be a major contributor to tension and conflict."

How can HR pros ensure that interactions remain civil?

Performance Reviews

No one likes to hear negative feedback during their performance review. The discussions between worker and supervisor can be ripe for hurt feelings, arguments and blame.

"The way employees are assessed is one of the biggest unnecessary stress factors," said Andrew Faas, founder of The Faas Foundation in Toronto, in the Ontario province of Canada,- and author of From Bully to Bull's Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire (RCG Press, 2017). "Subjectivity, ambiguity, biases and the ability to manipulate the performance management system has created a loathing of" such reviews.

Long before face-to-face reviews happens, managers need training on how to conduct them, said Catherine Mattice Zundel, SHRM-SCP, a consultant with Civility Partners in La Mesa, Calif.

"Performance management is one place a lot of organizations fail miserably," she said. "So many organizations never train managers on how to 'do' performance management. Every single manager out there should know how to prepare themselves for workers who react angrily, because they should've gone through a refresher training before they had the conversation. If you're not offering a refresher training on performance evaluations, do."

As part of that training, Alicea suggested asking supervisors to write down a list of reasons to help their employees understand why they received their rating. Remind supervisors to give employees suggestions to make improvements and to refer employees who feel that personal issues are keeping them from accomplishing their goals to HR. 

Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based psychiatrist and expert witness in employment cases, said it's always a good idea to first give an employee her performance review in writing.

"Let them address, in writing, what they disagree with, then the manager and employee can meet to discuss their differences of opinion, after each one has had time to think about it and cool down," she said.

Before the reviews, the HR department can remind supervisors and subordinates of some ground rules, Mattice Zundel said.

"This is our livelihood and who we are, so of course we're emotional when someone tells us we aren't meeting expectations," she said. "HR can suggest to employees—well before evaluations are scheduled—to keep emotions in check. This is a tall order. This is work. But employees who want to be heard must stick to the facts when they disagree. Keep it factual, unemotional, and focused on you."

Coach workers on how to react positively to what they perceive to be negative feedback, Alicea added.

HR managers should coach workers to turn negative feedback "into a positive or [take steps] to rectify the issue—without blaming others."  If you a personal issue is interfering with someone's work, HR should encourage a discussion "to see if resources like an employee assistance program may be available to help relieve stress or address setbacks."

Budget Tensions

Workplace budgets are often a root cause of stress and tension at this time of year. While HR is not typically involved in other departments' financial discussions, those discussions can end up on HR's doorstep if conversations become heated.

"The best route for HR is to work directly with managers involved [in budget talks] to shift the discussion in a more positive and productive direction," Alicea said. "Managers set the tone, and the boundaries, for their departments, and their attitude and behavior will determine how their teams respond to potential conflict. When HR works with managers to overcome their anger or strife, it can help create an environment of mutual respect and civility, leading to easier resolution of budget reconciliation issues."

In the case of an overspent budget, it is tempting for a manager to point fingers—for instance, to blame the company for underfunding his department, to blame other departments for siphoning off his funds, or to blame subordinates for failing to be financially responsible.

"In the case of pointing fingers on overspending, this comes down to the organization's culture," Mattice Zundel said. "If your organization has a negative culture of blame, the only thing HR can do is to remind people to stay civil and keep eyes peeled for any behavior or language that is inappropriate. And in 2017, you better get moving on culture change."

One way HR can keep such talks civil, Lieberman said, is by suggesting that managers vote by secret ballot on how best to spend the year's budget, or how to avoid overspending in the future.

"Then a meeting can be held to discuss what suggestions were made, without ascribing these suggestions to the individuals who made them," she said. "This way, employees can more objectively discuss what expenditures will help the company as a whole, without being influenced by whether or not they like the employee who suggested it."

Post-Election Fallout

While the 2016 presidential campaign is over, politics may continue to be a source of friction in the workplace, said Jeanne C. Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, an HR executive network and research firm in New York City.

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Managing Political Discussions]

"HR can expect the bitter aftereffects of the election to continue well into the first quarter of 2017," she said. "Business leaders must prepare for comments about politics entering into [company] town hall meetings, during team presentations and on the factory floor. Do not even think of banning this. It will have no impact at all."

Mattice Zundel suggests sending an e-mail to all employees—at all levels—reminding them how to conduct themselves during such discussions.

"Remind them that your organization is a workplace focused on respect and civility, so emotional and angry political conversations have no place in your company," she said.

She said HR can also offer these reminders:

*Although political conversations evoke strong emotions, everyone should keep their volume and emotions in check.

*If you don't like where a conversation is headed, say, "Excuse me, I'm going to step out" and walk away.

*Don't expect to convince others to agree with your political views. "If you go into political conversations knowing it will only be a conversation, and you will never be successful in swaying people, it can help keep your frustrations in check," Mattice Zundel said.

*Agree to disagree. "The workplace is already full of different people who believe in different religions, ways of life, and more, so continue to celebrate those differences and enjoy your co-workers," Mattice Zundel said.

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