“My direct report went over my head to the association president and complained about me. How should I handle this?”
If I had a nickel for every time I heard this question ... I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d certainly be able to buy a mocha latte.
Association executives usually find out about these situations when the association president informs them. Often, the president will tell you what the employee complained about, but not always; you may need to do a little digging. Was there a claim of discrimination or another legal issue? If so, the staffer likely followed the appropriate protocol in the employee handbook. If that’s the reason, you’ll need to wait while the matter is investigated and cooperate fully in the investigation.
If that isn’t the reason, you’ll need to understand what the employee is alleging. Ask the president or whomever the employee complained to about the nature of the complaint. Help that person understand, in a polite and diplomatic manner, the process outlined in your employee handbook and anything outlined in a position description or employment agreement. Be careful not to come on too strong. Don’t make things personal; stick to the business issue at hand.
In such situations, it’s not uncommon for the president to respond in a reactionary manner: “I received a complaint about our AE. Something is dreadfully wrong.” Remember that volunteer leaders are REALTORS® with many great skills, but they may have little experience to draw upon in these matters and may be uncomfortable addressing them.
It’s part of your job as AE to help them understand that employees can have their own issues. Maybe they aren’t getting their needs met. They may not feel appreciated or valued. Your critic might be an underperformer lashing out against a performance improvement plan or a person who thinks he or she can do things better than you. Whatever the case, you’ll need to have the president and any other members who have become involved understand your position.
Addressing the Issue
This is not the time to be overly assertive with respect to your authority but rather a time for diplomacy. Once the president and other parties have heard your side of the story, address the matter with the employee. The employee may become overly assertive, so you will need to be the calm one with the professional, executive demeanor.
Let the employee know you need to talk and want to see him or her in your office. When you start the meeting, you can begin by saying, “I’m a little confused. I understand there’s something we need to discuss. Our president told me you made a complaint. As you can imagine, I’m greatly disappointed you didn’t allow me the opportunity to address your complaint first. How can I help you?”
Understand that the employee likely feels he or she has one-upped you and may feel powerful in this situation. Introduce the subject and wait for the employee to state the issue. It’s OK to have silence. If the silence persists for some time, provide another opportunity to state the complaint: “I can’t help you if I don’t know what the problem is.”
If the employee refuses to state the issue, then you can say, “Since you aren’t forthcoming with the problem, I’ll assume by your silence that the problem has been resolved, and I’ll let the president know.” Follow up this meeting with an email confirming what transpired. Stick to the facts in the email. Alternatively, the employee’s motives may have been innocent, and he or she may be cooperative. In your response, stick to association policy and procedures. Remind the employee of the policy. Use empathetic statements such as, “I hear what you’re saying. Help me understand how you arrived at that conclusion.” Or, “It’s unfortunate you didn’t feel comfortable approaching me. Do we need to talk about that?”
Once the matter has been settled, let the president know what has transpired. Note that you wouldn’t normally discuss such a situation, but under the circumstances, you wanted to keep volunteer leadership informed. This assures your president that the matter has been handled appropriately. Shake the dust off your feet and move forward.
Do you have an HR question? Send it to Carole Kaptur confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org.