Tips for calming down an angry employee

Most upset staffers just want to be heard: Expert

It’s a fact of life for payroll professionals — they are internal customer service agents for their fellow employees.

Unfortunately, when colleagues become clients, circumstances can be more difficult when an unexpected situation takes an unpleasant turn.

In these times, it is important payroll professionals keep calm to prevent the situation from escalating.

“If the person is visibly and/or audibly upset, the payroll professional must stop what they’re doing — typing, reading, multi-tasking — invite the person to come in to talk about it face-to-face, close the door and remove any physical barriers that present any psychological walls,” says Ric Phillips, president
of Toronto-based 3V Communications.

Physical barriers on an individual’s desk may include books, computer screens or even large picture frames, Phillips explains. Payroll professionals should keep in mind how welcoming their office or workspace appears to visiting co-workers.

“The more they can see you is great; the more things are hidden is not good,” he says. “Any time that you can present that there’s no threat... will help ease confrontation.”

If a payroll professional finds herself caught off guard by the upset employee, she should take a moment and think about something that keeps her grounded, says Elinor Whitmore, vice-president of alternative dispute resolution at Stitt Feld Handy Group in Toronto.

Whitmore suggests people use the “10-10-10 strategy.”

“How much is this going to matter to me in 10 minutes, 10 days, 10 months?” she says of the strategy. “For other people, it may mean thinking about how they’ll be home for dinner in four hours — no matter what.”

After this, the professional needs to actively listen to what the complaint is.

“It will do no good to interrupt them, try to debate them, to teach them something while they’re upset,” Phillips says. “When things are calmer and you think you understand their point of view... then you should ask them for a self-assessment and their suggestions first.”

Hearing what the employee thinks the next steps should be provides insight about how the upset employee sees herself fitting in within the organization. This information will help the payroll professional communicate what the next steps should be.

“If the company has firm policies or procedures, then you can quote them and explain how it relates to the person or the issue,” he says.

When dealing with an upset employee, payroll professionals should keep in mind the “three Ps,” says Phillips.

“Be polite, professional and positive,” he says.

Remaining calm and speaking in a polite tone sets the stage for the rest of the conversation. Maintaining a level of professionalism demonstrates that the payroll professional does not want the conversation to become personal. Being positive shows there may be possible solutions to the problem the individual is presenting.

The upset employee should be given the opportunity to explain the situation without being interrupted — even if the payroll professional thinks she knows the story already, Whitmore says.

“Let them have their say,” she says, adding this often calms the individual because they feel as though they’re being listened to.

When dealing with angry employees, keep in mind the individual may really be masking a different emotion, she says.

“Somebody usually presents as angry, but behind their anger is fear or embarrassment or powerlessness or something else,” she says. “Try to know that they’re not so much angry as they may be afraid. They’re afraid their mortgage cheque is going to bounce. Or they’re embarrassed because they’re dealing with a garnishment.”

When confronted by an upset employee, Phillips says payroll professionals need to be aware of their voice. It should be calm, medium volume, medium speed and non-threatening.

The professional needs to also be aware that their body language is giving the right message, he says.

“No crossed arms, no crossed legs, no crossed ankles,” he says. “You also want to have a lot of eye contact. The point is that you want to give them all your attention when they’re trying to express a point or you’re trying to express a point.”

The payroll professional should acknowledge she has an understanding of the employee’s situation before detailing what options are available for the employee.

“An example of this would be, ‘John, I understand there’s a mistake with your cheque and you’re worried about what’s going to happen to your mortgage on Friday,’” she says. “Then you might say, ‘What I can do is call the accounts department and get them to look into this as soon as possible.’”

When communicating with the upset employee, the payroll professional needs to be sincere.

“I’m not encouraging people to robotically repeat back what they’ve heard. That can be annoying,” she says. “But when people are upset it can be helpful for them to feel they’ve been understood. If you can convey that naturally... that goes a long way.”

Watch for signs indicating whether the employee is de-escalating or escalating. Signs that someone is de-escalating include lowering their voice and slowing their speech.

“That’s the feedback about whether what you’re doing is effective or not,” she says. “It’s not that I think there are certain words to use or avoid, it’s that you try an approach and look for the feedback as to whether or not it’s going in the direction you want it to go.”

Anyone can practice these skills in their day-to-day life, Whitemore says, suggesting one area people may want to start practicing is with proactive listening.

“Many of us interrupt people very quickly in all sorts of different contexts,” she says. “Increasing your capacity to really listen — without interrupting — is a great skill and you can practice it with your colleagues, your family, your friends.”

Individuals can then practice reflecting back what they hear in a natural way.

“Start experimenting — it could be with friends, family — by saying back a little bit of what you just heard because most of us don’t do this,” she says. “We respond, we reply, we rebut as opposed to saying... ‘Okay, this is what I’ve heard now this is my comment.’”

When someone is upset, this is a valuable ability to have, she says.

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