Ask Managers for Probabilities and Forecasts in Employee Relations Situations

September 27, 2010

If quality conversations are the currency of any organization when it comes to employee relations, then a lot of HR pros get IOUs instead of cash.

Sharp human resources pros know what needs to be communicated in any employee relations situation, but they’re not the ones who get to say it. That duty belongs to the manager of the employee in question.

The recurring morality play that occurs as a result in most organizations is as follows:

1. HR pros are viewed as responsible for making sure “stuff related to people” goes OK. (Where I’m from, that’s also known as a trap. The alarm inside your HR pro head should go off every time someone wants to “run something by you” related to a problem they’re having with one of their people).

2. Even though you’re responsible, HR pros aren’t usually the ones having the conversations with the aforementioned “people.” You provide oversight and counsel. They have the direct reports and manage. It’s awkward for you to be in the room when conversations happen holding the equivalent of “what to say” cue cards. The employee ends up looking at you while the manager talks even when you point to help them understand who to watch.

3. Since you can’t be in the room, you coach your managers and your team on the situation and tell them what you’d do and say. If you’re good at this, the managers around you will start calling you “Hitch,” after the Will Smith character who always knows what to say. They take notes. Some write it down word for word. Still, confidence on how it’s going to go drops like a falling barometer.

4. The manager has the conversation. The office gets eerily quiet for a day, like right before a big thunderstorm hits.

5. You follow up with the manager after the conversation. “How did it go?” you ask. “It went great,” the manager replies, adding, “She didn’t have any questions, so it was easy.”

6. You take the response for what it is, saying, “OK, let me know if anything seems like it’s changed.” Then you go back to your office and curse your lack of leverage in the situation.

What? You don’t curse your lack of leverage? You should. You’re not a player in the game if you don’t care enough to do that.

You have no real clue as to how the manager delivered the message or what the employee is thinking as a result, and it’s difficult to follow up directly with the employee without undermining the manager.

The problem in this recurring employee relations situation is you’re expected to provide counsel, but have no authority to hold anyone truly accountable until it all goes to hell. So you need to create some authority where none exists.

The next time you follow up with a manager regarding an employee relations conversation, don’t be the person in the PG-13 movie everyone’s “really hoping makes it happen.” Be like the person in the R-rated movie—the one you’re not sure whether you like yet. You need to box in that manager and determine how confident they truly are that the conversation went well.

You can be that person by asking for a forecast or probability, which forces the person you’re helping to take a position on how well the conversation really went.

Probability forecasts have been used for decades by sales executives to cut through the B.S. of fluffy sales estimates. Here’s how it works for the HR pro in an employee relations follow-up:

• Go through Steps 1 through 4 as outlined above.

• When you’re having the follow-up conversation with the manager in question in Step 5, ask for a probability estimate—something like, “What’s the probability Cheryl’s going to resign as a result of what you told her?” On the recruiting front (especially if you’re dealing with a too frugal manager) you might use, “What’s the probability Brad’s going to accept the offer you have in mind?” Then make the manager in question give you a percentage probability.

• Listen to the probability and react accordingly. For example, if they give you a 60 percent or 70 percent probability that Cheryl is going to resign, then you can brainstorm the next steps and determine what can be done if that’s not a desired outcome.

I know, you’re saying, “Big deal, so I made them give me a probability/confidence percentage. So what? They can still do whatever they want.”

I understand and respect the cynic in you, but you’re not done with the concept of probability forecasts yet. The final step is to share the probability with stakeholders who matter in your organization, like the department head to whom the manager in question reports.

You don’t have to be mean, just factual. Try sending the department head a note along the lines of, “Seems like John did a nice job in that conversation with Cheryl. Tough situation and he estimates that there’s only a 10 percent chance Cheryl’s going to leave as a result of the message he had to give her.”

Make sure John knows you’re sharing the probability. Watch the focus and attention to detail sharpen in future employee relations conversations. Watch the forecasted probability become more realistic over time.

Then it becomes advantage: You.

Workforce Management Online, September 2010 -- Register Now!