When Employees Have Problems, Investigate and Confront

Orin Davis
3 min readNov 25, 2016

The last straw was probably when the customer threatened a lawsuit. It’s not that the suit had any merit, but rather that it was the third complaint that week about an employee. The boss called HR and had Pat* terminated.

You can imagine the surprise on the Pat’s face: being called into HR, getting fired, and finding out afterward that the manager had fielded three complaints. Pat was even more surprised because the complaints came from customers who voided their warranties and, per company policy, were not entitled to free service or replacements. Had the boss checked recordings of the calls, it would have been obvious that Pat was unfailingly polite and empathetic even while upholding the rules. Had the boss simply spoken to the employee, Pat would have been able to describe the interactions, shown how the customers voided their warranties, and reviewed how many different attempts were made to explain company policy to people who didn’t follow simple directions. Had the boss reviewed Pat’s service record, the manager would have seen a solid history with the company.

But, reasoned the boss, customer service agents are a dime a dozen, and I don’t want to deal with a confrontation. No confrontations with my employees, and no confrontations with my customers.

And a good agent loses a job for doing everything right.

Chris* may not have grown up under a rock, but certainly grew up in front of a computer screen, which afforded fewer opportunities for learning appropriate social norms to a sufficient level. Chris, too, was surprised to get hauled into HR after a comment that was meant to be humorous was flagged as sexual harassment. But for the discretion of the HR agent, who ascertained Chris’s social naïveté, Chris would have been facing a pink slip. Instead, Chris got a lesson on appropriate and inappropriate jokes in the workplace, and that really did turn out to be Chris’s last disciplinary trip to HR.

And a good programmer keeps the job despite making an honest mistake.

What separates these cases is in the willingness to confront, and then to work out the differences. People fear confrontation, because they are don’t know how to handle the negativity, the potential for loss, and the power dynamics. But, most importantly, they don’t know how to deal with the vulnerability.

When we negotiate with others, and openly express our wants, needs, ideals, and so on, we are vulnerable. These things can be used against us, they can show our limits and weaknesses, and our wants/needs can be denied us as a proverbial slap in the face that (rightly or wrongly) describes how deserving we are of getting them. In the heat of argument, we can be inappropriate (and that carries dangers), we can get our egos bruised, and we can be shown to be deficient or wrong because of our arguments, wants, or needs, and that rejection can strike at a very personal level.

So, instead, we appeal to authority and have it adjudicate for us in some formal and official way following a clear-cut set of nominally fair rules and policies…which usually leads to everyone losing. Non-professional mediators tend to have either no skin in the game or an unfair bias, and that means their decision is likely to be based either on a skewed conception of egalitarian fairness that requires everyone to compromise, or on expediency. In neither case can the parties involved engage in meaningful dialogue and come to an understanding, and in neither case can people express their needs and wants and find win-win situations.

By failing to confront, everyone loses. But, at least they’re comfortable, right?

(*Names and minor details changed for privacy; all references to people are intentionally gender-neutral.)



Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.