When Does An Informal Chat Become Formal?

Question to Ask the  Workplace Doctors about a problem interview: Should I have been warned instead of told it was an informal chat?

After an incident with a manager last week my direct manager informed me she wanted an ‘informal chat’. When I went in for the chat I was informed, ‘Karen’ was there to take notes. I was asked about the incident. My manager told me she would be speaking to the other manager involved and would be speaking to HR on the matter. If notes are taken is it classed as “informal” and should I have had notice of the chat and the opportunity of representation with me (we are non-union)? I know the other manager was interviewed about the incident and took a written report in with her.What happens now and where do I stand?

Signed, Worried

Dear Worried:

If the nature of the complaint or charges might cause you to lose your job or have severe punitive results, you may wish to contact an attorney to ask for assistance. Sometimes you can explain a situation over the phone and find out if they think you should have representation. Usually, unless something is very severe, it’s not necessary, but I don’t know that from here.

There are no regulations requiring an organization to handle internal discipline in any specific way as long as the matter doesn’t involve city, state or federal employment law (medical leave, overtime, health and safety, etc.)or discrimination issues that come under the law.However, if your organization is large enough to have an HR section and several layers of managers it probably has a protocol for investigating complaints or behavior or performance problems. Consider looking in an employee manual or talking directly to HR about how this was handled and find out if it was in compliance with your organization’s policies.

If the methods violated the organization’s policies, you can’t change what happened but at least you could ask HR to let you be re-interviewed now that you have time to get notes together as the other manager did. They might not choose to do that, but you could ask.

Also, by letting HR know about it, you might be able to bring your manager’s poor methods to the attention of others. According to how far you want to take this, you could even write to the person who is over your manager and say that you have lost faith in her truthfulness and her ability to conduct an unbiased investigation about the problem. That person might not do anything either, but once again, you would have at least brought it to their attention. (The risk is that you might be viewed as just reacting out of anger and you would be viewed more negatively as a result, so that is a decision that needs to be made after considering the whole situation.)

The main mistake your manager made was referring to the interview as an informal chat when clearly it was not. She had the authority to tell you there was a problem and she wanted to interview you about it. There was no reason for her to lie and call it something it was not, just to smooth the path to her door. If you had an otherwise positive relationship, perhaps you can talk to her now. Ask her to explain what will be happening next. Then, you could ask her the more direct question: Why did you tell me it was an informal chat when it wasn’t? Let her know how frightened you were when you realized it was being handled like a very formal investigation of serious wrong doing. She may need to realize how it was perceived.What happens now and where you stand now will depend upon the situation being investigated. If it was relatively minor (a conflict that ended in unpleasantness) the results may be minor as well. If the matter is serious or involves ethics, the results may take awhile and the sanctions may be more serious if someone is held at fault.

This is certainly the time to show maturity, professionalism and a business-like approach. If you were at least partly responsible for the problem you may need to simply wait it out and move forward without holding a grudge. If you weren’t responsible in any way hopefully the investigation will show that.The most important step right now is to find out if the situation was handled according to organizational requirements. I’m sure you’re very upset and frustrated, but remember that unless you’re prepared to quit your job you will probably still be there weeks, months or years from now, and your actions now may make a big difference in your future.

Avoid complaining more than you probably already have to coworkers. Examine the fact and consider why there is a view other than yours. Put your focus on your good work so you can outweigh problems with this other person.Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time, let us know the 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.