Rethinking Conversations Around Workplace Misconduct in a Remote Setting

Having tough conversations at work has always been difficult. However, the rise of remote work has brought new challenges in addressing complex topics like misconduct and performance because you can’t read and respond to nonverbal cues the same way you would in person. The way the employee perceives your communication can also be different.

You don’t want to avoid these discussions. However, you must have these conversations in a way that preserves dignity, encourages positivity, and promotes employee retention, as well as appropriately manages risk for your organization. Here are some tips to help you get it right.

How to Handle Difficult Conversations With a Remote Workforce

Because remote environments are already seen as relaxed, it’s more important for remote teams to have structured communication, as this can lessen the need for difficult conversations by addressing smaller issues before they escalate. Pay attention to warning signs that problems are arising, such as missed deadlines or substandard work, and tackle those issues immediately.

When you need to breach a difficult topic, tell the employee beforehand. Write down your talking points and practice with a colleague to check your language and tone. Consider that technology can present barriers to good communication and conduct yourself accordingly.

Take a step back if you’re feeling too emotional, and remember that the goal is to ensure that what has gone wrong doesn’t continue. Schedule a follow-up to check on the employee’s progress toward goals.

Employee Discipline

Before disciplining remote workers, you need to have structured policies to address issues unique to remote work, such as dress codes when on camera, mobile device usage, professional behavior, and productivity expectations. Also, ensure employees understand the severity of behaviors like harassment, insubordination, and criminal activity.

Train your managers to consistently and effectively adhere to your organization’s disciplinary process with employees so that consequences are fair and professional. Establish a protocol for progressive discipline that includes counseling, verbal and written warnings, improvement plans, and clear escalation steps, such as demotions, suspensions, terminations, transfers, and reassignment.  

Always give employees a way to appeal. Continually remind them that they’re valuable to the organization and that you want them to improve so you can keep them on board. 

Performance Reviews

Only 20% of employees say their manager handles performance reviews in a way that makes them want to do outstanding work. One answer to this issue is to apply the progressive discipline model to performance evaluations, allowing managers to take on a coaching and development role that helps employees want to grow and improve. 

To accomplish this, consider moving away from the once-a-year performance review model, adopting a quarterly process, and checking in after completing major projects. Identify the data you need to collect and implement technology and tools to help you track it. Then, train managers to coach employees, emphasizing the need for empathy, positivity, and multi-directional feedback. 

In remote settings, ensure that performance guidelines and criteria are clear. Don’t allow remote employees to opt out of the process, as this will inhibit professional growth.

Some Tips on Conducting Investigations Remotely

In remote situations, interviews via videoconferencing are best. Telephone interviews are better than mobile texts or messaging apps if this is not an option. Due to legal implications in the remote environment, privacy and confidentiality must remain paramount. 

Investigators must set up in a private space where no one else is present and have interviewees confirm they have done the same. Advise interviewees about laws regarding consent for recording and avoid using personal devices or email accounts. Don’t conduct interviews in public areas or use public Wi-Fi, and ensure airtight security when sharing or storing documents.

Special Considerations for Handling Remote Terminations

When terminating a remote employee, ensure you have all documentation, including performance reviews and written warnings. Decide who will conduct and witness the termination meeting, and prepare talking points in advance.

It’s crucial to contact IT before the meeting begins so they can remove access to servers and applications, back up critical data, and plan for device collection. Conduct the termination meeting via videoconference, and make sure to announce the witness. 

Be empathetic but firm, direct, and concise. A member of the HR team should reach out for a follow-up meeting to disseminate paperwork, discuss health benefits and severance, if applicable, and answer any questions. 

Leveraging Psychology to De-Escalate Remote Work Situations

Many aspects of an employee’s life are tied to work, including finances, friendships, and sometimes a sense of self-worth. Consequently, tough conversations, investigations, and terminations can quickly become emotional. Maintaining professionalism demands that employees and managers be able to de-escalate situations. A few tips include:

  • Relaxing your body by dropping your shoulders, changing your tone of voice
  • Avoiding crossing your arms or legs
  • Using facial expressions to show interest
  • Offering support during times of high anxiety or emotion, to include resources through your EAP
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Using active listening skills by repeating what you heard and verbally reflecting on it
  • Validating the employee’s feelings, even when you disagree
  • Emphasizing the employees’ strengths and keeping language and tone positive
  • Being solution-oriented and suggesting solutions where possible

Remember to stay calm and avoid passing judgment. Leaving your ego at the door goes a long way in difficult conversations.

Resetting Actions and Expectations for Tough Workplace Communication

As remote work continues to be an option, managers and HR professionals must do more than just enact new policies and procedures. You must also change the way you navigate tough conversations and issues. 

Remember the goal, and make sure everyone walks away from the conversation feeling they are valued. By doing this, you’ll be able to have difficult conversations while limiting turnover and keeping the work environment intact.