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Psychology to use when presenting a staff complaint to a partner

Any complaint from a staffer about a boss is unpleasant to address. But when the alleged culprit is a partner, the situation can get grim. Confronting the partner could put the administrator in a job-threatening position.

“It’s a touchy situation,” says Linnda Durre, PhD, a business consultant and corporate trainer in Winter Park, FL. Durre is also author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against the Co- Workers, Bosses, and Work Environments that Poison Your Day.

Approach the boss wrong and the administrator could end up fired, but leave the matter untouched and the staff dissatisfaction that follows could likewise result in job loss.

Durre, who is a psychotherapist, lays out the best possible—though admittedly risky—approach.

Get every little fact

Start by getting prepared to meet with the partner. Really prepared. Get the entire picture with every detail.

Ask the staffer to describe exactly what happened—the dates, times, places, the names of witnesses, how the behavior has affected the staffer, and whether it has affected other employees and if so how.

Then write out a chronology of the events showing that on this date X happened and on that date Y happened and so on.

Collect even the tiniest points. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the partner is, after all, an attorney and the meeting will be “like a law case where there is evidence to be presented.”

Set up a formal appointment

It’s now time to beard the lion.

Schedule a meeting with the partner.

There’s psychology to that, Durre says. A scheduled meeting emphasizes the seriousness of the situation. Right away, the partner knows “this is important.” Moreover, being the one who does the scheduling gives the administrator “a little more power and authority.”

Send the partner a written agenda—another indication of the seriousness. Seeing specific items that have to be discussed, the partner knows it won’t be possible “to walk away from it or blow it off.”

By contrast, she says, popping in on the partner and laying out the issue is nothing short of ambush, and the conversation will begin and end in conflict.

Neither will it work “to toss it out in a hallway conversation.” Do that, and it looks like “the problem isn’t that big a deal,” the partner gives it only passing attention, and the administrator walks off a loser.

She adds a caution about scheduling the meeting, however. “A lot of bosses hide behind their assistants” to buy time and hopefully push the meeting off altogether. If that happens, there’s no other choice but to confront the partner in the office unannounced.

Presenting the case

Now for the dreaded meeting.

The administrator has to speak calmly and logically, Durre says.

Go in with the notes in hand. Notes serve two purposes. They keep the administrator on track and help make the presentation “as logical and clear as possible.” And they serve as protection. If the matter is a serious one such as discrimination, they show how the administrator addressed the situation.

The safest way to start the conversation is by setting ground rules:

I would like to give you my full comments without interruption and then hear what you have to say.

Follow that with a compliment:

Partner A, many employees here love your commitment to excellence. You have motivated them to do a good job, and the profits have gone up because of your efforts.

Then drop the other shoe:

What we have now though is a complaint of abrasiveness. Staffer Jones feels you are making it difficult for her to produce quality work.

Then to the actual problem:

Staffer Jones says that when you assign projects to her, you constantly change the directions and the deadline, and she has difficulty getting the work completed because of it.

Never accuse the boss of anything. Always use some form of the word alleged. Instead of “you did such-and-such,” say “So-and-So feels” or “he got the impression that” or “his perception was.

Lay out the specifics

Then to the specifics. And mince no words:

She alleges that on September 1 you gave her an assignment of X and the following morning you told her to do Y instead. She claims that when she asked for clarification, you said ‘finish it today or else.’

Be abundantly clear about what the staffer claims has happened. And if the matter is exceedingly serious such as sexual harassment, don’t hesitate to be blunt with the terminology:

She says that on October 3 you called her a voluptuous woman, that on the morning of October 4 you made a comment about her hips, and that later that day you patted her backside on your way to the elevator.

Next, tell how the behavior is affecting the staffer:

She says she is frustrated and feels you don’t want to see her succeed in her job.

If the partner “has really crossed the line,” this is the time to say so lest the partner dismiss the complaint as trivial.

Now lay out the possible consequences:

If what she says is true, we are in danger of producing inaccurate work (or whatever).

Finally, show a desire to solve the issue positively:

We don’t want to lose Staffer Jones, because she’s a valuable employee. And we don’t want to give our clients anything but top quality work. That’s why I’m bringing this to your attention.

All that says the administrator is fair and open-minded and is honestly trying to avoid trouble. No accusations have been made; the administrator is only presenting what someone else has said.

Now give the partner the floor, and Durre’s advice is to “take extensive notes” to avoid any question later about what was said or promised.

Also keep in mind that everybody is innocent until proved guilty, so don’t dispute what the partner says. Just listen and take notes.

End with a call to action. It may be that the administrator will get some type of training for Staffer Jones. On the other hand, the call might be:

Staffer Jones requests that after you give directions for a project you give her time to ask questions and make comments. We don’t want to lose her. She’s a valued employee.

A follow-up letter

After the meeting, send the partner a follow-up letter detailing what was said. A good opener is “Thank you for meeting with me Monday. My understanding of our meeting is as follows.

Number the discussion points:

  1. I spoke with you about the difficulty Staffer Jones is having with your directives. She has said you constantly change your directives making it difficult for her to produce quality work.
  1. She requests that you spend time with her after giving directives so she can clarify what work is required.
  1. We agreed she is a valued employee.
  1. We agreed to do X, Y, and Z.

Besides keeping the matter on logical course, that letter is yet more proof the administrator addressed the situation appropriately.

A balance of hierarchy

What if the psychology fails and the problem continues? The response, unfortunately, depends on who the offender is.

If it’s a situation where a staffer complains about a manager to whom the administrator does not report, give the matter a week and if nothing is done, play hardball: “If this isn’t resolved, you leave me no choice but to go to your boss.

But if the offender is the boss, that’s not an option. About the most aggressive thing the administrator can say is “This really needs your attention. It’s affecting client service—and profits.” That’s often persuasive, Durre says. “Nobody wants to lose profits.”


Related reading:

Five dangers in dealing with harassment complaints


What to do when a lawyer harasses staffers but no one complains


Protect yourself and your firm with a strong anti-retaliation policy


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