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Tips on How to Agreeably Disagree

Two people sitting at a desk with a laptop in front of them.

​Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.   

If you are or aspire to be an HR professional, get ready for disagreement. On many occasions, doing your job will require you to tell someone that what they want to do is wrong. Workplace tensions and challenges continually place HR professionals in an argument's crosshairs.

I wish I could give you a magic solution by which all stress would forever disappear from your HR career, but that's not possible. Instead, here's an approach I believe will serve you well. I call it "agreeable disagreement."

The key is to use active listening as your mechanism for disagreement. As readers of my column know, my favored technique is "EAR": Explore; Acknowledge; Respond.

The secret sauce is the sequence. The response—your position—comes after you have first explored the other person's position and then have gotten them to acknowledge that you understand them. Unfortunately, the overwhelming tendency among most human beings, including but not limited to HR professionals, is to begin with the response. This typically leads to a counter-response, which in turn is followed by a counter-counter-response, and so on, taking everyone down the argumentum rabbit hole.

Here's an illustration of how to do things differently: 

The HR Business Partner & the Agitated Manager 

Assume you are an HR business partner. Manager "X" walks into your office and says, "Employee 'Y' needs to be fired today!"

After reviewing the file and circumstances, it quickly becomes evident that Manager X has neither properly followed company disciplinary policy, nor properly documented the situation.

You could start, as most HR professionals would do, with a response: "I'm sorry Manager X, but based on the circumstances and the lack of proper documentation, I cannot support termination. Here's what I think you need to do … . "

What's your best guess as to Manager X's likely reaction? "Thank you, HR, I appreciate you." (I don't think so.) Instead, you've probably generated another recruit for the "I hate HR!" club.

How about using active listening instead? "Manager X, help me understand how you've come to the conclusion that this employee should be fired now. Please walk me through the history, including each of the problems that arose and how they were dealt with."

In addition, you can say, "Please explain to me your documentation and how you applied company disciplinary policy." Other questions to facilitate greater understanding could include, "What other actions, if any, did you consider taking with this employee? What were your reasons for ultimately choosing this action?  What do you think the outcome would be if you took action 'Z' instead of termination? Is there anything else that may be contributing to your feelings about this employee? How can I/HR support you best with this situation?"

This is the explore stage. In a collegial, collaborative way, you are essentially putting Manager X to work in laying out the overall situation and discussing other options. By doing so, including by asking follow-up questions, you are creating opportunities for Manager X to realize there is a better way to handle things. Self-realization is much more effective than an HR pronouncement, such as: "Manager X, I noticed that although our policy calls for a final written warning at this stage, I don't see one. Please explain."

Next, you come to the acknowledge stage. "Thanks Manager X. Let me see if I can summarize things accurately. Please correct me if I mistake anything." You then summarize what you think are the key points shared, including the reasons why the manager wants to fire the employee and where the gaps are with policy and documentation. "Do I understand things correctly?" you ask.

After you get confirmation from Manager X that your understanding is accurate, now it's time for your response.

"I agree that you're having serious problems with this employee and are fully justified in being concerned. Here are my concerns with termination at this point. … For these reasons, I'm afraid we haven't yet checked the necessary boxes that would support a termination."

Next, you might say: "If we should receive a legal challenge after terminating the employee, I'd want you and the organization to be on the best possible footing to defend our actions, and I don't feel we are in that position. However, I'm happy to work with you going forward. If this employee isn't willing or able to make the necessary changes to meet your expectations, then you and I will work together toward a fully supported termination of employment. At that point, if we receive a legal challenge, we can successfully defend that we've taken every possible step prior to termination, which would likely place you as a manager and the organization in better standing. How does that sound?"

Note the differences between the typical HR/management exchange and what I just sketched. Although the manager doesn't get HR's approval for a termination, the manager feels fully listened to and understood. In addition, by following the EAR sequence as opposed to jumping to the response, you're able to customize your response, get the manager to think through other possible resolutions and perhaps offer solutions.

Taking the EAR approach sets the stage for you to develop a collaborative relationship with Manager X going forward. How much better is this than the all-too-common management hostility or passive-aggression where management does its best to avoid HR at all costs?

When HR professionals learn how to agreeably disagree, their workplace influence expands exponentially. Here's how Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, a senior HR executive with the state of Arizona, describes this approach: "Now THAT'S a real business partner!"

Add the EAR to your HR toolkit and watch your positive impact soar. 

Jathan Janove is a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year," author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins 2017), Master Coach & Practice Leader with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching, and faculty member, University of California San Diego Masters Series.


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