How Do I Tell An Employee She Is Too Quiet?

Question:

I am a newly appointed Sergeant at a jail and I have a challenging employee working for me. She has been here five years and is not very interested in her job. She has several personal problems which affect her job.

When she is upset about work or about her personal problems she comes to work and is very quiet around her coworkers and supervisors and her nonverbal communication indicates she is mad and standoffish. This concerns her coworkers and her various supervisors and when she is asked if she is O.K. she answers in a very quiet voice that she is fine, when she clearly is not fine.

This is disruptive because it draws the attention away from work and on her. I have sat down and talked to her but she insists everything is fine, and I just don’t know what to say to her so she stops the quiet voice thing and we all don’t feel uncomfortable around her.

When she talks to the inmates or citizens she talks normally and doesn’t appear to be upset. Another supervisor noticed this a few years ago and sent her to a class on communications skills, and the problem went away. It is also her nonverbal communication that people pick up on when she is upset. I am trying to find a way to bring it up in her evaluation without saying she shouldn’t be so quiet at work because it makes people uncomfortable. Can you help? Thanks.

Signed,

Grow Up!


Answer:

Dear Grow Up!:

There are several issues to consider about this, because it IS a difficult one to pin down and deal with. Let me discuss two approaches. The first has to do with focusing on the employee’s behavior and taking action about it. The second has to do with the overall team.

You only asked how to bring up the topic on her evaluation. But, let me suggest something that goes past that to a definite and permanent solution.

1. Before you put it on the employee’s evaluation, ensure there is ample documentation of counseling. If that documentation hasn’t been done in the past by other supervisors, or not to the degree you’d like to see, consider another counseling interview before the evaluation, in which you do an overview: *What you and others have observed about her behavior in general and her communication style particularly.

*The negative impact it has on work. *Your concerns about the causes of such an inappropriate communication style. *Your research on what has been tried in the past to assist her to communicate more effectively. *What you want to see in the future; what should stay the same, what she should do more of, what she should do less of and what she should never do again.

Then, you can document that through a memo back to her, reiterating what was discussed. In the memo you will have a list of the things that have been done in the past, if you don’t have such documentation now.

If you already have ample written documentation of counseling, training and so forth, you may not need to take this approach. However, it often gets the attention of employees when they see, in writing, that there have been several attempts to improve their behavior or performance and that the current supervisor has that together in an overview format. It tends to send the message that things might be happening if there isn’t improvement.

2. Something you’ll need to know is this: Let’s assume this is not the result of an emotional problem that needs professional treatment, but rather a behavioral decision on her part. What is going to happen if you counsel with her again or reflect this on her evaluation but she doesn’t improve to the level you want? One way to clarify that is to say to yourself, “She had better start acting and talking normally, or else!” Then ask yourself, “Or else WHAT?” What could you do that would ensure she would change? What would get her attention to the point that she would see she had better behave differently? Will your commander support that? HR? The Undersheriff and Sheriff, if they have to sign-off on it?

That is one reason these kind of issues are often best handled as team efforts, getting input from several sources before you start. It doesn’t have to be a big, dramatic mission; just make sure you are on the right track and will be supported as you continue.

3. Robert Mager, in his great book, Analyzing Performance Problems, discusses a rational approach to improving work performance and says sometimes performance issues are the result of organizational issues, sometimes employee issues. He’s not referring to a behavioral situation, but the concepts apply.

A key issue in his suggested plan to analyze a problem is to determine this: Has the employee ever done this the right way? If they never have, that’s one thing. If they have, then you know they could at some point and likely could again, given the support to do it. Then, you can look at what has changed, what makes the difference, when did the right way stop and the wrong way start, and related issues. The book has a flow-chart at the back that is very helpful for tracking a situation.

I teach about what I used to call the .38 Caliber Rule, but decided some might think I sounded violent! Now I call it the You’re Fired Rule. It’s this, applied to your situation: If the employee thought she would be fired if she was heard communicating as she has been doing, would she be able to communicate appropriately? If she could, then you know she can do it if she chooses to do it. That puts it in perspective about whether she has so many problems she simply can’t behave differently. That doesn’t mean you ignore what is causing the situation, or that you don’t care about her personal concerns,but at least it says she can do it the right way if she chooses to.

You mentioned that she talks to inmates in a normal voice; that answers the question, most likely. Something is keeping her from communicating effectively with co-workers. It would be good if you could find out what. But if you can’t, she still must communicate effectively.

4. Consider other issues related to her interactions at work. Does this employee perhaps feel she will get a negative reaction for communicating differently? Has she ever been gossiped about or criticized for expressing her thoughts or speaking up? Has she talked about personal issues and had that come back to haunt her in some way? Those might not be excuses, but could be mitigation in her mind. See if the general conversation is not conducive to appropriateness. She may find others to be offensive in their styles. She may find it easier to just say the basics and shut up. You may have a bigger issue than one person, to deal with! Also consider her work in general. You say she is not very interested in her job. Apart from this, is her work good or not? If she were to correct this one area, how valuable do you think she’d be? I mention that because sometimes an employee’s overall work is only mediocre, but one issue becomes the focal point of supervisory efforts; and often that is the communication issue because it’s the most irritating! On the other hand, sometimes an employee is an excellent worker, but the supervisor notices the communication issue so much that the other work is not valued as it should be.

It could be this is not the job for her. She may be happier elsewhere or in another agency. If she cannot work effectively she could very well be a liability issue–and that is your responsibility. As you know, better than I, working with inmates can sometimes make a bad situation worse for a detention officer. Her interactions with them should certainly be closely monitored. As you know, there are many detentions officer who do something unethical or illegal because they have a closer attachment to inmates than to co-workers.

5. Resist the temptation to be a psychologist or counselor about what is causing her communication style issues. You cannot adequately help if she has personal, emotional or mental issues. However, you should refer her to as many resources as you think might help. You might want to give her a list of resources, covering a variety of issues, so she could decide what seems most appropriate. Or refer her to EAP. Find out if you can make a required referral. The key for you is to emphasize that you want her to find support (that’s better than saying, “help”) for whatever is concerning her, but her communication has to become more effective right away. Keep the emphasis on effectiveness.

It is ineffective at work to speak in a way that shuts down communication from others or that puts their focus on the idiosyncrasies of the speaker instead of the information being conveyed. Effectiveness involves using a situational appropriate tone of voice, effective use of interpersonal non-verbals such as smiles, eye-contact and cues that encourage conversation (gestures, nods, etc.), an appropriate amount of conversation; neither too little nor too much for the situation, effective listening and feedback, and communication styles that make it easy for co-workers to share information, thoughts, concerns and ideas.

You want to help guide any employee toward assistance if that is needed, but the communication has to be effective all the time and right away. You know she can do it, now you expect her to do what she is capable of doing. It’s as basic as that. However, lest you think I believe this has to be a hammer approach: Do your best to not distance yourself professionally from this employee. Keep the approach that she is a valuable member of your team and you want to see her be her best, not only for the sake of the organization but for her sake as well. If she isn’t a valuable member of the team, that tells you that other work is needed as well.

6. That brings us to the evaluation. Finally! I don’t know the format of your evaluation. I assume you have a written portion as well as ratings. If you have done all of the above, evaluate accurately in the area about communications or whatever is appropriate. In the narrative, note the problem, what you have done and what you will do. A direct, specific, pragmatic tone is best. You likely would write this much differently. But here is what I would write, if I already had everything documented:

“D.O. Sanderson adopts a communication style with co-workers that is different than she used when she was first hired and that is different than her normal style with citizens and inmates. It is distracting and frustrating to others and keeps her from being as effective as she could be. It also has an impact on other areas of her evaluation, since effective communication is a key issue in her assignment.

With co-workers and supervisors she often uses a low volume, unexpressive tone that she does not use in routine conversations with citizens and inmates. The result is that she often appears to be unhappy, angry, upset or sullen, but will not discuss it when asked. She does not change, even when she knows it is creating a distraction for co-workers and supervisors. The result is that often the focus at work is taken from safety, security and work-related activities and is placed on her unusual and disruptive behavior. She has been counseled about this before and has attended communications training, after which she improved slightly, but returned to her ineffective style.

Starting immediately, and continuing throughout the next rating period, D.O. Sanderson must change her communications style in the following ways: She must use a tone of voice that is appropriate for the setting; show positive interpersonal gestures, facial expressions and body language; and, make positive eye contact with co-workers and supervisors and communicate openly with them. She must indicate a willingness to talk appropriately, work with others, listen and provide feedback, express ideas and support individuals and the team. If she has personal problems or issues that affect her work, she should seek assistance to resolve those problems, but they cannot be expressed at work in a way that detracts from effectiveness with co-workers. If she makes this change and continues, her evaluation in this area will improve next time. If not, more focused supervisory action will have to take place to ensure that she is communicating effectively as required.” As I said, you would probably not write like that. But you must admit, that would send a message! I am a firm believer in decisive action that leaves no wiggle-room for an employee who is not performing correctly.

The second part of this situation involves the entire team. Dr. Gorden has suggested, and I agree with him, that perhaps there should be an emphasis on building the team, at the same time you are working with this one individual.

He said, Another suggestion is to approach the whole matter as a departmental (unit) effort to make interaction maximally effective. This might be designed as test project extending over a two-three month period in which the group as a whole (or in small groups) defines what makes for impoverished versus communication-rich working relationships. If this were to take place, silent withdrawal and/or pouting descriptors undoubtedly would be listed if such behaviors were troublesome, and then to counter negatives, positive descriptors would be generated. And follow-up group sessions could re-enforce strides toward the effective and correction of the negatives. He also noted this: Possibly, the new sergeant might find that he too can enable those under his charge to help him learn how to manage more effectively. 1. He could privately think through and list the way he intends to communicate and manage/lead in light of the protocols of his organization and personal preferences. 2. He then could invite those under him to do the same for one in his new role. 3. He could schedule sessions for them to express what they think might make his communication and job maximally effective and pleasant. Discussion of how two such concepts —that of the boss and bossed–might converge or at least be understood from each of their perspectives might make for good working relationships. It too would not be a one-session quick fix, but should be seen as an on-going effort that merits periodic collaborative review and adjustment. I would add to that: It is important that other employees not be contributing to this employee’s problems or issues, by their own behavior. They are not supervisors, you are. They’ve expressed their thoughts to you, I’m sure. Now it’s time for them to focus on doing their work to the best of their abilities. Each of them likely have their own strengths and weaknesses, as do you. Rather than being so sensitized to her communication style that they can’t work effectively, they need to put some extra effort into hearing past the tone and overt indicators of unhappiness or whatever, and get to the message. They would do that with an inmate, so they should do that in this case as well.

Finally, consider your role as one who identifies problems and intervenes to correct them. Intervention can involve supervisory counseling, training, professional counseling, peer assistance, resource use, reassignment, negative discipline or termination. If the problem is worthy of dealing with, it must be followed through to the end. Hopefully, the employee will see the need to become a more effective communicator and thus, a more effective worker. I think that will happen, because her situation is not so severe as to be unsolvable.

However, if that doesn’t happen, at some point you need to ensure that the organization is able to replace that employee with a better one. That sounds harsh; and most criminal justice agencies are very reluctant to take such action; but that is the way it would be in private enterprise.

Perhaps Dr. Gorden’s ideas and mine will have triggered some additional thoughts of your own. I know you only asked about the evaluation, but really, there is more to it than that, don’t you think? This could be an excellent opportunity for you to help one individual and the team, as well as to establish yourself as a supervisor who does the right thing in the right way.

Best wishes as you deal with this challenge. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know what results.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.