Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I am the head of an HR department. Occasionally, I run into a situation where an employee tells me about a problem and asks me to do nothing with the information.

For example, last week I was talking to someone who is upset with their boss. The employee feels intimidated about delivering bad news because of how the boss reacts. The boss gets visibly upset, becomes abrupt, and frames questions in a blaming way ("How could you let this happen?"). I believe this is a real issue. I've seen a version of this from the boss in a different context very occasionally. This could be detrimental to the organization, because people will avoid giving you bad news if you react poorly, so it might have implications beyond this one employee-supervisor relationship.

After listening carefully, acknowledging emotions, and assessing what strategies the employee has already tried, I turned the conversation to action planning. The employee told me they wanted to do nothing. I suggested there might be options, like talking to the boss, that could take many different forms and that I could support in a number of ways -- directly or indirectly.

In this case, the employee's assessment is that the boss is who they are and will never change. I disagree with this, having seen significant and sincere changes in the boss's behavior in response to feedback, which I told the employee. The person repeated their decision to do nothing and asked me to do nothing as well, and that's where we left it.

I did speak with the boss's boss in general terms, but I want to do more to change the situation. However, I rarely directly observe the boss's behavior and have little current firsthand information to address this with the boss myself -- not without outing the person who talked to me. Doing some kind of systematic 360 review for the supervisor has occurred to me, but that's out of the ordinary for our organization. I suppose we could change our whole system to do it for everyone, but that's a huge undertaking, when really what we need is a way to deliver some very specific feedback to one Individual.

Once or twice a year, I encounter something similar. There's a skill gap in a boss (different bosses) that is bad for the organization as well as an individual employee, but I'm handcuffed by the employee's request that nothing be done. I empathize with the employee's anxiety about a difficult conversation -- power dynamics with your boss are real, and while I can support the conversation and ensure no substantive retaliation, I can't manage every aspect of how the boss is going to react.

On the other hand, I sometimes suspect there may be an element of embracing the victim role in these cases, especially when the person seems to want to dwell at length on the wrongs that have been done to them.

How do I balance my obligation to act for the good of the organization with respect for an employee's wishes that nothing be done about a problem?

Green responds:

This one is actually pretty straightforward: Make it clear to people when they first come to you that you can't promise them confidentiality.

Explain that you may need to take action on what they tell you (because your job is not to be a priest or a therapist but rather to act in the best interests of the organization), but that if that happens, you'll ensure that they don't face negative repercussions for it. You need to really emphasize that last part (and mean it) or no one will talk to you at all. I'd use wording like, "I can't promise that I can keep anything you tell me confidential, because sometimes people share things with me that my job requires me to act on. But I will promise you that if it's something I do need to act on, I will bend over backward to ensure that your manager won't penalize you for having shared it with me, and I know that's necessary in order for people to continue being comfortable raising issues."

People giving you information that you have to agree not to act on doesn't get you anywhere good. You're either stuck not sharing something that you really should be acting on or -- more commonly -- you're stuck betraying a confidence (which will eventually result in no one trusting you).

Short-circuit that whole thing and be clear up front that this isn't therapy or a confession booth; when people come to you, they're approaching a representative of the company with a work concern. Then it's up to them whether they want to do that.

You might worry this will mean that you won't hear about important things you'd want to know about. But that's unlikely to happen (and again, if so, you'd be back to that same choice of whether to betray an employee's confidence or not act on the information). As long as you follow through when you promise to protect people from any retaliation for talking to you, you're still likely to hear just as many important things as you hear now (if not more so, because people will respect you for being straightforward about the dynamics in play). And, sure, you'll probably get far less of the unproductive "I don't want you to do anything; just listen to me" venting, but that's good; that's not what you're there for anyway.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Mar 9, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.