At some point, most HR people have probably had to have a difficult conversation with an angry employee. Sadly, the office can be a breeding ground for resentment and pent-up fury. People feel they are being treated unfairly; colleagues aren’t pulling their weight; they’re not being paid enough, their boss is being unreasonable; bad performance review, etc.
Sometimes people’s feelings are justified, while on other occasions it comes down to misunderstandings. Their colleagues’ roles, mis-interpretation of events, communication break-downs or simply a personality clash. Whatever the reason, if the anger is allowed to fester, the problem is likely to come knocking on HR’s door.
There are also times when HR people become the target of anger themselves. Maybe an employee has reacted to a conversation about possible redundancy with anger, for example. Or, feels that some disciplinary action that has been taken is unjustified.
Regardless of the circumstances, being faced with someone who has been overtaken by angry emotions is certainly not a pleasant experience. So, what can you do to calm the situation and get the conversation back on an even keel as quickly as possible?
Don’t go on the defensive
When faced with an angry employee, our first instinct is often to defend ourselves/the company, or counter-attack. The fight or flight reaction is a natural response to threat, but it’s also likely to escalate the problem. The best approach is just to listen. Unless you feel your personal safety is at risk, concede the floor and let the person get the anger out of their system. They won’t want to listen to you if they are still churning up with fury inside.
Don’t blank them
It’s tempting to ‘tough it out’ when someone is standing in front of you shouting and waving their arms. We put on a deadpan expression and pretend their anger isn’t having an effect on us. Unfortunately, this often winds the person up even more and they could escalate their behaviour in an attempt to get a reaction. You need to keep control of your own emotions, but don’t be afraid to show that the anger is affecting you.
Match the energy
Since people look for a reaction, an effective way to calm people down can be to match the level of energy they are directing at you. It’s not about being angry or aggressive back, but matching energy in body language and the level engagement in conversation. It reassures them that they have been heard and that you understand how passionate they feel about the issue at hand.
Show positive intention
Once you allow the person to vent their anger, try to discover the facts. Ask for examples of the behaviour that wound them up the wrong way; talk through why that made them feel the way they did, and what would make it better in the future. As an HR professional, you need to watch out for situations where you, or senior managers, need to step in (either for legal reasons or to prevent conflict in the wider business).
If the anger is related to bad news—such as a redundancy or disciplinary—direct the conversation away from their resentment and onto what needs to happen in the future. Show empathy for the way they are feeling. Make it clear that you genuinely want to try to help resolve the issue. Help them think about next steps and positive actions they can take to move the situation on. Make sure you reflect back to them before the end of the meeting anything that’s been agreed, so that you both have the same understanding.
In an ideal world, we would all like to feel that we’ve managed to resolve the situation, calmed the person down and that everyone has walked away happy. In reality, it rarely happens like that.
Be realistic about what you can achieve and think about what your criteria for a successful exchange would be. Have you managed to bring the temperature down and shift the focus to the future? Have you made some progress in the conversation, even if you haven’t managed to resolve the situation? What are the next steps you need to take?
If you felt you didn’t handle the situation well, ask for training, or perhaps involve others who have more experience of mediation. HR has a tough role, and it’s important to make sure that you get the support you need.