Viewpoint: Caught in the Middle

What to do when two subordinates keep dragging you into their problems with one another

By Paul Falcone Feb 21, 2017
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Sharon is an HR generalist for a 100-employee public relations firm, and she reports to Laura, a CEO who prides herself on her leadership, communication and team building abilities.

However, there is a nagging problem that consumes too much of Laura's time in the C-suite and that leaves staff members feeling awkward and like they're walking on eggshells: Laura's executive assistant and the company receptionist can't seem to get along with one another. Both individuals run into Laura's office to complain about the other person on a fairly regular basis; claims of pettiness, lack of effort, rudeness and other snubs seem never-ending. Laura realizes that each individual complains about the other in exactly the same way and alleges many of the same things, in particular a lack of respect or trust in the other's willingness or ability to do his or her job.

How can Sharon help Laura put an end to the complaints? More importantly, how can Sharon help Laura reset team expectations to stop not only the drama but also the spiraling accusations and traps that the two appear to be setting for one another?

"Sharon needs to counsel Laura that both Laura's executive assistant and the company receptionist need to raise their awareness about how they're coming across to the CEO and to everyone else on the team," said Judith Enns, Ph.D., executive vice president at Eastridge Workforce Solutions in San Diego. "Further, Laura needs to stop allowing herself to be placed in the middle of their dispute, no matter how much Laura prides herself on having an open door to all of the firm's employees." 

[SHRM members-only content: Conflict Resolution Policy]

The healthiest place to start is with HR, since conflict management and dispute resolution clearly fall under HR's umbrella.

Sharon wisely recommends to Laura a strategy that allows both employees to feel heard and supported. Rather than sitting both employees down at the same time and insisting that they stop the ongoing antagonism and tension, it's better for Laura and Sharon to plan two sets of meetings over a two-day period. On the first day, they can both meet with each employee to hear the individual's side of the story and to demonstrate their support and understanding. On the second day, the four of them will hold a group meeting to reset expectations and move forward on a healthier basis.

"Adults can't typically fix both the what of the problem and the how of the solution on the same day and in the same meeting," Enns counseled. "They typically need to hear the other person's side of the story and to sleep on it to be able to walk a mile in the other person's shoes and make themselves part of the solution. When they own their own solutions, they can act."  Here's how Sharon opened the meeting, which Laura attended to ensure full transparency and total understanding all the way around. (We'll call the executive assistant and the receptionist Joe and Vanessa, respectively, in our example.)

"Joe, Laura and I called this meeting with you to share our concerns about the ongoing tension between you and Vanessa. It appears you and Vanessa struggle to keep the peace, and Laura feels like you're each in and out of her office way too frequently complaining about the other. It has also risen to the level of being a workplace disruption issue because others are noticing it and informing Laura that they're uncomfortable when you and Vanessa are together. People have told Laura that they feel like they have to walk on eggshells around you both when you're together and that they'd prefer to cut a wide swath around you rather then deal with you directly when you're angry.

"Here's how we intend to handle this, Joe. Both Laura and I want to hear your side of the story in terms of what's driving the ongoing antagonism and tension between you and Vanessa. We're here to support you individually and as a team, but we've got to reset expectations and reinvent the relationship by giving you both a fresh start. Here's the catch, though: Everything you tell us now is something we're going to share with Vanessa immediately after this meeting. Likewise, we'll meet with her after this meeting to learn about her side of the story and inform her that we're going to provide you with her feedback before the end of the day.

"At that point, all the ghosts will be out of the closet in terms of what the problems are, what historically led to them and why there may be resentments lingering between the two of you. I'll ask you both to reflect on the other's input tonight and give thought to what you can change about your own behavior to elicit a different response from the other person from this point forward.

"Tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m., we're then going to meet as a group—all four of us. In that meeting, we're going to address the matter professionally and focus on the how of it all—how we move forward from here, how we handle ourselves relative to the rest of the staff, and how we can assume good intentions to build a stronger sense of camaraderie and teamwork.

"Let's be clear: After tomorrow morning's meeting, we're re-welcoming you both back to the company for a fresh start. We're not going to ask you to forgive; in fact, we're not even going to ask you to forget. But we are going to ask you to assume good intentions, rethink your commitment to our firm and hold yourselves accountable for managing how you present yourself to your co-workers, which in both your cases has been negative and to your detriment."


After meeting with Joe, Sharon and Laura hold the same meeting with Vanessa. They explain their intention of resolving these ongoing tensions. After hearing Vanessa's side of the story with an open mind, they then inform Vanessa of Joe's specific complaints and allegations. Likewise, they tell Vanessa that they're going to reach out to Joe immediately to convey Vanessa's specific concerns.

"Again, with such clarity and transparency, both employees get a chance to be heard, both believe that the CEO and HR are on their side (which they are), but both come to realize that their inappropriate behaviors must end here and now," Enns said. 

On the following day promptly at 8:30 a.m., the four employees gather in Laura's office. Laura opens the meeting by setting the following expectations:


"Yesterday afternoon on Sharon's advice, we met with you both one-on-one to hear your respective insights. We listened with an open mind and believe you both have some valid points. That being said, many of the complaints you're making about the other person appear to be identical: claims of lack of respect and lack of a good-faith effort seem to be your biggest issues about the other person. All in all, though, your complaints are making you both look small and petty. The ongoing tension between the two of you is also being felt by other members of the team, and our purpose in coming together this morning is to move your relationship in a new direction."


Sharon then continues: 

"From an HR standpoint, I'm going to give you a few recommendations for this meeting that we're about to hold. First, don't hold anything back. This is a once-in-a-career benefit, so be forthcoming and truthful. What we ask, though, is that you assume good intentions and share your thoughts in a spirit of positive and constructive feedback. There's no attacking and no defending necessary. We're simply coming together as adults to solve a problem that is negatively impacting the workplace.

"Second, we want you to determine what you can change about your own behavior to elicit a different response in the other person from now on. Now that you've had a chance to hear how others are perceiving you, we expect you to increase your awareness about your communications with one another and adjust accordingly.

"Third, we need to discuss what the consequences will be should this problem rear its ugly head again in the future. Our goal is to help you heal an old wound, but we also have to reset expectations to ensure there's no roller-coaster effect of undermining one another. And we're both telling you here and now that if we have to address this with you again, it will be in the form of formal corrective action, or what we call progressive discipline. Now who would like to open the conversation to tell us briefly about your concerns but also what you learned from hearing the other person's side of the story through our meetings yesterday afternoon?"


"Setting up this type of meeting as a leadership partnership between Laura, the CEO, and Sharon, the HR specialist, is the smartest way to go so that the employees can't later play the corporate dad against the corporate mom," Enns said. "In addition, clarifying that further incidents of pettiness will result in formal corrective action should go a long way in stopping this type of unhealthy behavior in its tracks." 

Of course, these employees, like all others, can always raise significant concerns to the senior leadership team or HR. But they have to realize that the incessant small complaints about the other are not appropriate in the workplace—and certainly not in the CEO's office.

Apply this two-tiered approach to conflict resolution of allowing the warring parties to first voice their concerns and then sleep on it so they can better determine how to make themselves part of the solution. With clear expectations set, the problem should stop once and for all.

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is an HR trainer/speaker/executive coach and has held senior HR roles with Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon and Time Warner. His newest book, 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees (Amacom, 2016), focuses on aligning front-line leadership teams and on key employee retention. A longtime contributor to HR Magazine, he's also the author of a number of SHRM best-sellers, including 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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