We Need to Talk: Ten Tips for Having Difficult Conversations with Truckstop Employees

Employers rarely look forward to difficult conversations, but they can be necessary to effectively manage a team. Avoiding conflict can lead to greater issues down the road. Whether it’s a performance issue, a personality conflict or a dissatisfied employee, truckstop owners and operators said addressing the issue head-on, being empathetic and documenting the discussion can make it easier to navigate a challenging conversation.

“For me all difficult conversations start with the goal of leaving the team member with dignity, a plan for success and a way out if they cannot meet expectations,” said Ericka Schapekahm, director of human resources and special projects for Coffee Cup Fuel Stops. “I have found that setting expectations, always being honest and including them in the solution takes the sting out of difficult conversations and is more likely to make it a positive experience.”

Darren Schulte, vice president of membership for NATSO, said, managers need to embrace direct feedback. “Companies have to have a culture of addressing issues, both the good and the bad. It is critical to find the things people are doing well and address those and you also have to have a culture where you address issues,” he said. “A lot of us view corrective actions as negatives and we shouldn’t. Corrective actions aren’t always negative. They can be positive because you’re taking the time and effort to fix somebody’s problems.”

One of the most common mistakes managers make is trying to avoid the conversation, Schapekahm said. “So many leaders feel that all feedback is negative, so they hold on to critical items hoping it will get better,” she said. “I hear things a lot like: ‘I was hoping she would figure it out by watching the others,’ ‘I wish he would do it the way I showed him,’ or ‘It was in their training, they should know.’” 

Most of the time, those statements are used to avoid having to tell someone they are doing something wrong, saving the leader from an uncomfortable conversation. “I have a rule in leadership: Do not wish and hope for things to change, make them change through leadership,” Schapekahm said. “When a leader approaches me with hopes and wishes, I ask them, ‘What have you done to make that a reality?’”

Don't Wait
Rather than holding on to critical feedback, Schapekahm suggests taking employees aside during down time and having a nice, honest conversation about what the leader saw and how the employee can do it better or correctly. Schapekahm said leaders have an obligation to be timely in having difficult conversations. “Old bad news is confusing and counter productive,” she said. “Do not wait until you are mad or frustrated. Do it the first time you see it. Be positive, offer solutions, ask if they understand and tell them you’ll check back to see how it is going.”

Managers should never assume a problem will go away, Schulte said. “Not addressing it leads to bigger and bigger issues,” he said. “Difficult employees, like anything, can turn into something positive or something very negative.”

Think Positive
While difficult conversations can be a challenge, Cindy Knight, human resources manager at Rochelle Petro Travel Plaza, said not to go into them assuming the worst of the employee. “Frame it in a question at first to see if maybe they don’t even realize it or are lacking knowledge in some way,” Knight said. 

Keep in Confidential
Knight said a common mistake she has seen is the manager talking to everyone about it except the employee. Knight said difficult conversations should always take place in private and never in front of other employees. “If there is any potential for legal issues arising out of the conversation or the topic, it’s always good to have a witnessing manager with you,” she said.

Knight added that letting employees know that the conversation will be kept confidential generally makes them feel better.

Review Expectations
Schapekahm reviews expectations and reminds employees of their training on the topic at hand. “Ask them how they feel they are doing and what roadblocks they have,” she said, adding that it is important to listen carefully.

Any roadblocks should be addressed seriously, even if they are more perceived than real, to ensure they are not in the way as they try to course correct. 

Next Schapekahm acknowledges areas where the employees are performing well, then moves into what she has seen. “Talk to them about specifics, dates and conversations. Make it real to them,” she said.

Be Detailed
Schapekahm suggests being specific about what is happening, providing solid examples and offering specific incidents so employees can tie their feedback to specific behavior. “Team members deserve honest feedback from the moment they start so they understand how to be successful. Honesty includes having a clear vision of what you expect and clearly communicating it so that when they are not meeting expectations, they are not surprised to get the feedback,” she said, adding that employees may be embarrassed by a conversation, but they should never be surprised.

A common mistake is not being prepared with good documentation, good examples, and a plan for success or a way out for the employee. “We approach each difficult conversation with honesty. The goal is always to make them successful, but we also leave them with dignity when we tell them the role is not a good fit for them,” Schapekahm said.

Solicit Feedback
Schapekahm also asks employees for their solutions. “We generally ask them to create their own action plan, then we supplement with specifics, deadlines and appropriate [steps] to take,” Schapekahm said.

“Be positive about the plan and the possibility of their success,” Schapekahm said, adding that employers should also be realistic about consequences.

Document the Process
Schulte recommends employers document issues in a multi-step process. “Try to get the person to document and sign what you’re talking about so they acknowledge it,” he said.

Documenting conversations throughout the year will help ensure managers remember the

positive feedback they have given throughout the year when it is time to write reviews. “Most managers are very busy and forget the great stuff from several months ago, so good feedback documentation is just as important as critical feedback documentation,” Schapekahm said.

Good documentation can be very simple, and it does not necessarily have to be lengthy. It can include the date, a brief outline of the con­versation, main topic covered, ex­pectations set, solutions discussed, plan in place and consequences,” Schapekahm said.

For example: “Today we spoke to Jared about his chronic tardiness. We showed him his last two weeks of in punches and asked him if there was something keeping him from ar­riving on time. He stated his alarm clock doesn’t work. We asked him what else he can use, could he buy a new one. He stated his phone has an alarm feature. He will be setting an alarm on his phone and purchasing a clock soon. We informed him more late punches will result in written corrective action.”

Coffee Cup Fuel Stops has simple documentation forms that leaders can fill it in easily for day-to-day coaching. “More serious coaching conversations are documented in more detail with a witness to the conversation. Documentation is critical,” Schapekahm said.

Get Prepared
Managers could lack the training that helps them feel prepared to handle difficult con­versations. Managers who haven’t had training in conflict resolution can take part in online or in-person training to learn more about han­dling the process. The NATSO Train­ing Manual also has information on conflict resolution and NATSO staff can serve as a resource. “We can help them develop a corrective action pro­cess, and we can be guides to assist them in putting programs together because it is not easy,” Schulte said. “Most companies don’t have cultures of addressing problems because it is hard to address a problem. You often end up waiting until you’re angry. Then it is a major issue.”

Schulte also suggested members draw on their colleagues within the industry to work through solutions. “Use fellow NATSO members in the industry and reach out to them to ask them how they’ve handled differ­ent situations,” he said.

Focus on Policy
Sometimes topics can get personal, such as a need to address an employee’s body odor. Knight suggests reviewing the related policy if there is one, such as employees must shower before coming to work, and remind the employee that every­one is to abide by the policy. “Most likely they will figure it out, indicate understanding and appreciate ending the conversation quickly,” Knight said. “Usually that one comes up to due to other employees complaints, but I don’t bring the complaints up unless they just aren’t getting the message or they deny and push back. 

Even if conversations get uncom­fortable, Knight said it is impor­tant to resist the temptation to say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ or ‘It’s ok.’ “That will just send them the signal they can go right back to what they were doing,” she said. “Then you just negated the whole meeting.”

Be Direct
Above all, Schulte said it is crucial that leaders don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and managers should never assume a prob­lem will go away. “When you have a difficult employee, there is a tendency to wait and wait and wait, but difficult employees only get worse. They don’t get better,” Schulte said.

He suggests addressing the issue head on. “Difficult employees are worth sav­ing. It is critical to address it directly and address it early,” Schulte said.

via Business Feeds

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