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chris griffiths

Illustration of two people speaking different languageslorenzo rossi

Nature abhors a vacuum; yet many small business owners continue to struggle with human resource issues in the absence of a key ingredient: their employees.

Small business owners and senior managers often ask for my advice on employee management issues in the workplace. While the kinds of issues they face vary wildly across businesses and industries, there's usually a common denominator; they all want advice in advance of having had a face-to-face meeting with the subordinate in question.

Instead of having a two-way conversation that may expose root causes to the problems and even opportunities for improvement, the owner asks me for help. To me, this approach suggests that the owner is looking for a solution that can be imposed on the employee – and not one one that can be developed in conjunction with the employee.

This strategy will not work in theory or actual implementation. And even if it did work, the small business owner could be missing a critical opportunity for self-improvement and indeed, a best practice that could serve the company and other employees well into the future.

Usually the conversation starts with the business owner describing a deficiency in the employee's attitude or punctuality or productivity or accuracy or some combination therein. My first response is always the same: "what did he or she say when you expressed these concerns face to face?" The answer from the owner is usually along the lines of, "well, I wanted to talk to you first," or "I didn't want to create a scene".

My philosophy is that if you are willing to provide me with a detailed explanation of what you think is wrong, then surely the employee deserves to hear the same thing and participate in corrective action. This should be your first step.

In my opinion, the position in which the small business owner finds himself is not an HR problem – yet. It's an HR responsibility. It is not a problem until a face-to-face meeting or if several of the concerns are severe or complicated, resulting in a stalemate or an inability to find common ground between all parties and an agreed upon plan to try new approaches.

Prior to this meeting, the business owner doesn't actually have a HR problem – he has a management problem. He is not doing the minimum required to inspire the most out of the employee. So my rule of thumb is that if you are thinking it and even going so far as to express your concerns about an employee to other people, it's only fair to express it to the one person who make the biggest impact towards a solution – the employee in question.

The first step is to approach concerns with the employee in a non-confrontational way that includes as many questions as it does statements. Tell him how you are feeling, why it concerns you and ask him if he thinks your perspective is fair. Ask him what they would do if he was in your shoes. Ask him what you can do differently to help participate in improvements.

It's also important to explain your concerns not from your own personal preference, but from a perspective that shows how the business is affected and the difference it would make if the issue at hand could be solved amicably.

Lastly, don't be afraid to document the results of the meeting or agreement on paper – one which all affected parties will sign. It may feel a bit awkward and formal for a small business but believe me, it can go a long way to clear up any misinterpretations or incongruent memories of the meeting later on down the road, especially if the issue needs to be addressed again. Furthermore, if the small business owner's concerns are not satisfactorily corrected and disciplinary action is required, documentation of the start of the problem and steps to correct it along the way, will serve all parties well.

It comes down to human nature. The best results come with the most honest and interactive means of problem solving. After all, if the roles were reversed, isn't this the approach you would expect and deserve?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and sold seven businesses.

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