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Got a problem employee? Don’t whitewash

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

One of the worst communication blunders you can make as a leader is to whitewash. Whitewash is the tendency that many managers have to address a problem behaviour by issuing a broad edict to many, instead of being direct and specific with the particular employee it relates to.

Let me give you an example. One employee is repeatedly late coming in to work. Rather than address the issue specifically with the tardy employee, the supervisor instead sends out an e-mail to the entire department reminding everyone of the unit's work hours and the importance on being on time. This is whitewash. Instead of dealing with the specific issue, a blanket message is broadcast to everyone in the hope that the one person who really needs to hear it, will. And of course that never happens.

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Whitewash is ineffective and demoralizing

The one person who really needs to hear the message doesn't – in fact, he or she assumes that it applies to everyone else. Whitewash is not only useless, it's actually demoralizing. The rest of the team (you know, the ones who do make the effort to come to work on time every day) are now wondering why the supervisor painted them with the same brush as the errant employee. At best, they will roll their eyes because the manager was unable to deal with the issue directly, and at worst, they will be disheartened by the wide proclamation. "Doesn't my supervisor notice that I am always prompt?" and "I guess my efforts aren't really recognized" are the possible outcomes of this general announcement. Not only is whitewash ineffective in accomplishing the primary objective, it has the unintended consequence of destroying team spirit and morale.

Now if you've ever whitewashed, you likely thought you had good reason. Perhaps you wondered whether the benefits of singling out an employee outweighed the disadvantages. And quite frankly, even if you wanted to have a direct conversation with the problem person, you probably didn't know how. But if you want unacceptable behaviour and actions in your employees to change for the better, you have to be clear and direct, you cannot beat around the bush. Instead of using whitewash, structure your conversation by focusing on five key steps.

Make the first move

Bring up the issue. You have to make the first move, because you can be sure that your employee won't. In the case of the tardy employee, you could start with "I have noticed that you've come into work late three days this week."

Continue with empathy, but be direct

Keep going. Be straightforward – you have to be clear about the undesirable behaviour and what you want changed or what you want to happen. Tone is important in order to convey empathy and respect, but you cannot imply or drop hints hoping that your employee will read between the lines (he won't). To continue with our example: "I am concerned to see this frequent tardiness because not only does it affect your work, it also affects our scheduling of other employees who have to cover your phone calls until you get in."

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Anticipate anger

Be prepared for the natural reactions of defensiveness and anger from an employee. Your goal is to respond with composure and acknowledgment, but refuse to be drawn into conflict. If you lose your temper, the conversation will spiral downwards quickly.

State your interest in resolution rather than escalation

Expressly indicate your interest in resolution. Never lose sight that your desired outcome is for the employee to change his or her behaviour or actions. With the tardy employee, you might say "I don't want to turn this into a big issue where we have to start watching and checking the time clock. I'd much rather just get your agreement that this won't happen from now onwards."

Close on a positive note

Make a positive statement to close the conversation. You can thank the person for listening and responding in a constructive way. Or you can ask for a future meeting to further discuss the issue. Or you can offer to follow up later. "I'm glad we talked, and I want to help you anyway I can. I'm counting on you to be on time every day from now" is a good way to close the discussion in our continuing example.

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One conversation is not likely to solve your problem. So be prepared to do this several times, each time structuring your dialogue using these five steps. But whatever you do, don't whitewash. Not only is it futile in achieving your desired outcome with your problem employee, it is discouraging to the high-performers on your team. So don't go there. Instead, difficult as it may seem, choose to be direct and clear when addressing problem issues with your staff.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author who turns managers into leaders, drawing upon her over 17 years of first-hand experience as a leader in corporate Canada. Reach her or join the conversations on her blog at www.TurningManagersIntoLeaders.com.

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