How to Communicate About a Work Problem



Office problems range from workflow inefficiencies to personality conflicts. Employees often have front-row seats to observe this kind of drama and system failure but may not feel empowered to discuss issues with managers or executives who have the power to intervene.


While reluctance to rock the boat is understandable, workers should realize that many company leaders appreciate hearing about problems, even from young employees.


"I think most company cultures are very open to someone on their team bringing up concerns," says Tracie Sponenberg, senior vice president of human resources for The Granite Group, a plumbing supplies distributor. "The younger generation is coming in with terrific ideas. It's a smart business move to listen to them. It would be a terrible idea to discount the ideas of the technology-savvy young people coming into the workplace."


To successfully talk about problems in the workplace, have confidence and be tactful, say expert members of the Society for Human Resource Management. They offer their insight below about how clear, thoughtful communication can make tough discussions easier and more productive.


And no matter what the issue, before you raise it to your boss, "be prepared to bring a solution," Sponenberg says.


Talking About Process Errors


Hiccups can disrupt even the most optimized work procedures – and many of us work in offices that are far from perfectly efficient. If you notice a flaw in the system or a disruption in the workflow, or simply have an idea about how to complete your work in a better way, be strategic about how you tell your boss.


The first step is to conduct thorough research about the existing process, says Danna Hewick, vice president of human resources at USSI, a cleaning services company. Learn about other links in the chain; figure out where the moving pieces come from before they're passed to you, and where the pieces go after you pass them on.




To make sure you're on the right track, run your concerns by a tenured co-worker before raising them with a supervisor, Sponenberg says. He or she may have more insight about why the system works as it does.


Develop a thoughtful plan for how you'd address the problem: "There really needs to be a solution, otherwise it seems like a complaint," Sponenberg says. "Chronic complainers are draining and detrimental to an organization."


Then, explain your concern to your boss and pitch your proposal for improving the situation. Would your fix be faster? Cheaper? More in line with your personal preferences?


Employees who commit this effort are "seen as providing really valid advice and valid input, because they've really thought through it, they're closest to the problem and they know how it's impacting them and others," Hewick says.


Discussing Interpersonal Drama


Offices are rife with interpersonal drama. Maybe you share space with a co-worker whose habits you can't stand. Or you have frequent miscommunication problems with your boss.


The first step to resolving these kinds of problems is to talk directly to the other person involved in the conflict, Sponenberg says: "I'm a big believer in direct communication."


During these discussions, try not to dwell on your emotions. Stick to talking about "the behaviors and the actions and the words being said that are causing this problem," Hewick suggests.


For example, if your co-worker insults you, rather than calling her "insensitive" or "rude," you should just repeat back to her the words that bothered you and explain that you found them hurtful.




Avoid using "definitions and labels" because you can never be sure what has motivated someone else's actions, says Mark Marsen, director of human resources for Allies for Health + Wellbeing. "Your interpretation may be very different from the reality."


For example, if a co-worker is always late to work, you may be tempted to confront him and complain that he isn't a good worker, is lazy and doesn't care about his job. But this colleague may have personal circumstances of which you're unaware and approved accommodations from the company, Marsen explains.


If you try to resolve tensions directly but the conversation gets heated or you can't resolve the problem, seek mediation from a supervisor or human resources staff member, Marsen says: "It's never a bad idea to talk to someone neutral to help with perspective; someone in the organization who is a good facilitator or a good diplomat."


However, when it comes to workplace violence, go straight to an authority figure, Hewick says: "If somebody has an issue that is threatening, that is harassing or anything else severe like that, they immediately need to notify somebody or contact human resources, to make sure that is brought to attention and dealt with quickly."

Pitching Personal Accommodations

Many workers get squeamish about making normal workplace requests like taking sick days and using vacation time. So having to ask for special circumstances in response to a personal issue can feel very intimidating.

"It's really hard, asking for something you need," Sponenberg says. "It is getting over that fear of somebody saying no to you."


That perspective comes from experience. Years ago, Sponenberg asked to work from home one day a week for personal reasons, and her boss said no. Later, she tried again with a more thoroughly reasoned plan, explained that her proposal was "beneficial to me and my career and the company," and she was successful.

"You can't get anything like that unless you do ask," she says.

When you have a personal situation that intersects with your job, talk to your boss about the possibility of getting a work accommodation, experts say. Go into the meeting prepared with a proposal that includes solutions to the problem.

Hewick suggests this opening line: "I really value working here, I've thought this through and here's how I think I can continue to do my job while I deal with this."

Try to anticipate questions, Sponenberg says. For example, if you want to request to work remotely one day a week, be ready for questions from your boss such as, "What happens if we have a meeting on that day?" "How can we get in touch with you?"

If your boss does not want to make an accommodation, take your request to the human resources department, Hewick says, which should help you figure out a solution that meets your needs and those of the company.


By Rebecca Koenig