Personnel e.bulletin – August 2015

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Don’t Shoot the Messenger
Prepared for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc.

Communication is key to good management decisions, so why do you keep getting surprised by negative news? Learn how to recognize the signs that employees are keeping negative information from you and the reasons why they are doing it. Who wants to tell their boss about something bad happening if they are going to get yelled at, regardless of whose fault it was?

Building an environment of open communication is crucial to managing employees.  Employees will perform better and feel more loyalty to a company if they know exactly what is expected of them and receive both constructive and positive feedback.  Also, employees will more likely come to management if they’re met with transparency, respect, and responsiveness.

If employees have learned that their information sharing will be met with indifference or negativity, they will be less likely to bring to management ideas that could improve the company’s performance or problems that need to be solved to ensure its continued success.

This article focuses on the latter – negative news or problems.  If a manager can recognize that employees are hiding bad news – for example, a problem with a customer – the manager can try to discover the problem and work with them to solve it.  That’s a short-term fix.  What that situation also reveals is that employees don’t want to come to management with their problems. That is a bigger problem, so if the manager keeps getting surprised by negative news, the next step is to examine how the workplace culture can be improved to encourage employees to come to management.

Step 1: Recognize the Signs

First, it’s important for a manager to detect that employees are hiding bad news.  Several behaviors, especially if they have developed recently, can be indicators:

  • Employees do the bare minimum necessary to get their work done.
  • Employees have a “whatever happens, happens” attitude.  They may take longer than normal lunch breaks or often arrive late or leave early.
  • Employees used to stay as late as necessary to finish their work but suddenly have begun leaving right at 5 p.m.
  • Employees stop talking when you enter a room or often whisper to each other.
  • An employee seems to be trying to tell you something but does so indirectly and without coming straight out with the problem.

Also, experienced managers – whether they realize it or not – can often detect shifts in the workplace and when something is amiss with employees. They should listen to that instinct.

Finally, if managers examine their own or other managers’ actions and realize that employee problems haven’t been addressed positively or at all in the past, that could support a suspicion that employees are hiding something.

Step 2: Address the Problem

After the manager has considered the signs of a problem – a feeling that something is wrong and the clear symptoms – it’s time to address it.  This can be the first step toward creating a culture of more open communication.

When sitting down with an employee to try to evaluate a situation, for example, a customer has complaints about work done by the employee, the manager should frame the conversation positively.  Instead of displaying irritation or yelling, the manager can calmly gather the facts and listen openly. The manager can then thank the employee for bringing the information and then include the employee in the solution, sharing suggestions as well as soliciting the employee’s ideas.

If the problem took the manager by surprise, except for the subtle signs from employee behaviors, it’s probably time to assess why there’s a communication problem and what can be done to solve it.

Step 3: Make Some Changes

Here are a few reasons that employees might be reluctant to share information with their manager:

  • The manager’s response when an employee brings a problem and offers a solution is that the company has tried that action before and “it didn’t work.”
  • The manager has developed a reputation for hearing about ideas and problems and then not addressing them.
  • Employees who have brought problems in the past have been treated poorly or fired.
  • The manager has responded to employees’ information sharing angrily and unproductively.

If a manager has recognized that employees are not sharing negative information because of an environment inhospitable to communication, it’s time for the manager to change behavior.

The key to creating a workplace in which both good and bad information is welcome is making employees more comfortable coming to their manager.

A manager can make a few simple behavioral changes to foster an environment of open communication:

  • Act.  Managers shouldn’t ignore or dismiss a problem.  When an employee brings negative news, a manager can respond with a solution and make it clear to employees that it is being carried out.
  • Frame conversations positively. When an employee relays bad news, a manager should respond calmly and avoid accusations.
  • An important part of communicating is listening, which takes some practice.  But employees will more likely communicate transparently with their manager if their concerns are being listened to and acknowledged.

Finally, management can create a culture that emphasizes open communication in the following ways:

  • Be transparent. Employees will more likely trust management and be open and honest themselves if they believe their manager is doing the same. For example, a manager can share customer feedback with employees. Also, if managers are transparent with their employees in setting expectations and giving feedback one-on-one, employees will more likely be transparent right back.
  • Establish an open door policy.  Of course, this requires more than just saying your door is always open. Managers should encourage employees to bring problems to them and then respond positively and constructively, take action, and, if possible, keep the discussion confidential.
  • Meet individually with employees each month.  This doesn’t have to be too long or formal, but it should be substantive.  A face-to-face meeting rather than an e-mail or phone call will make everything clearer and more personalized and will give employees a better sense that their manager is listening.  Also, during the meeting, managers should:
             – Ask specific questions that show employees the manager understands their role and will also elicit more useful information.
             – Be clear and detailed in feedback on the employee’s performance, in solutions to any problems, and in setting goals for the future.
             – Give both positive and constructive feedback so that employees feel recognized at the same time that they are learning how to improve their
             – Listen to employees’ concerns and ideas.
  • Pay attention to exit interviews, consider criticisms and suggestions, and incorporate them to improve communication with current employees. 

Employees’ withholding of information can hurt a company. If managers don’t know there’s a problem, they can’t solve it.  Employee secrecy can also reveal to managers that they might need to work on how they handle problems and that they might need to improve their company’s culture.  By making both incremental and global improvements to create an environment of open communication, managers can both better address problems in the short term and foster trust and creative problem solving in the long term.


This content was developed for the PHCC  Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc. ( Please consult your HR professional or attorney for further advice, as laws may differ in each state. Laws continue to evolve; the information presented is as of July 2015. Any omission or inclusion of incorrect data is unintentional. Please note this article is not intended to provide legal advice or to substitute for supervisor employment law training.

The PHCC Educational Foundation, a partnership of contractors, manufacturers and wholesalers was founded in 1987 to serve the plumbing-heating-cooling industry by preparing contractors and their employees to meet the challenges of a constantly changing marketplace. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting the Foundation by making a contribution at

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