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Thick Skin Training Needed For All

Sometimes nothing is more frustrating to a supervisor or a human resources manager than the poorly performing employee who seems incapable of accepting constructive criticism. But managers and supervisors can be similarly thin-skinned when employees make complaints about them, and their reactions to subordinates’ criticism may explain why 45% of all charges filed with the EEOC are retaliation claims, and why these types of claims are also on the rise with other agencies.

When supervisors react by saying “The complaint has no merit,” or asking “Why didn’t the employee bring his concern to me instead of going over my head?” they are escalating a situation that might otherwise be easily resolved. Instead of taking the high road by letting HR resolve the complaint and maintaining a good working relationship with the employee, managers that become irritated at the complaining employee might start treating that employee differently, applying a higher level of scrutiny to that employee’s performance evaluations, or isolating them from other employees by cutting them out of meetings or email chains. Allowing this type of behavior may raise the likelihood of that employee filing a charge of retaliation because of the complaint the employee made.

So how can companies teach their supervisors to remain cool when they are the targets of an employee complaint? Maybe it is time for some “Thick Skin Training.” Supervisors need to be taught that a good supervisor is one that can accept criticism and be able to recognize his or her own weaknesses in handling subordinates’ performance problems. Yes, the performance problems may be legitimate, but a good supervisor is also capable of acknowledging how he or she may have contributed to those problems. Supervisors who admit that they may not have been entirely clear about their expectations or that they may have been overly curt when communicating concerns about performance are likely to be more successful in the long run. Of course, in order to get supervisors and managers to accept criticism, a company needs to develop a culture where it is a positive trait to candidly acknowledge one’s shortcomings.

At the same time, companies should remind supervisors and managers that the company is serious about its non-retaliation policies. If a supervisor or manager has been the subject of a complaint, they need to stay out of any investigation unless they are asked to participate. Additionally, if a supervisor finds himself in a position where he or she might have to discipline — or simply correct — a subordinate who may have made a complaint about them, they should talk with their own supervisor or the human resources department before taking any action. Supervisors also need to be trained to look out for other supervisors who might be retaliating against an employee who made a complaint and report that to HR or in-house legal counsel.

The bottom line is that managers, HR, and in-house legal counsel need to grow some thick skin and allow the company’s complaint and non-retaliation policies and procedures the opportunity to work as intended. Failing to do so may result in your company joining the many other employers facing retaliation claims in state and federal government agencies.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.