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Proactive approach can soothe rocky work relationships

Early legal intervention can help get a struggling workplace relationship back on track before it’s too late, Ottawa employment lawyer Ella Forbes-Chilibeck tells

Forbes-Chilibeck, the founder of Forbes-Chilibeck Employment Law, says she likes to take a proactive approach to deteriorating employment relationships, encouraging her clients to reach out to her at the first sign of trouble.

“I often end up in a situation where I’m advising in the background, supporting people who are having a hard time at work, or when they’re in a situation that looks like it may be heading toward termination,” she says. “Together, we look for ways to stick-handle the relationship so that the conflict is not unnecessarily escalated.”

Forbes-Chilibeck says she has performed the service for employers but more often acts for employees in these scenarios. Typically, she says trouble arises when a new boss arrives on the scene and an employee previously regarded as a top performer suddenly feels as though nothing they do is right.

“There’s a personality clash and the two people end up at loggerheads,” she says, adding all is not lost if the parties follow certain steps:  

Find common ground

“The first thing you have to do is step back, put your ego in your back pocket and listen,” Forbes-Chilibeck says. “Then you can find the points where the two of you agree and begin to build or return trust to the relationship.”

“If one side is trying hard to make it work, it’s almost impossible for that relationship to die, but you have to be intentional about it,” she adds.  

Don’t forget to communicate

Forbes-Chilibeck says silent seething is a recipe for disaster in any type of relationship, including those in the workplace. However, she says it’s important to engage using the right tone to avoid making things worse.  

“Sticking your head in the sand is never a solution. Bosses need to be told the truth, and employees need to hear it, too,” she says. “Let people know what they’re doing well, but also kindly and considerately explain what isn’t working. Concerns can be raised and boundaries can be set without it being seen as a personal attack.

“If you can talk about things before they get too serious, you can usually avoid a big blow-up,” Forbes-Chilibeck adds.     

Prioritize issues

Little things can end up bugging us, but Forbes-Chilibeck says some broader-picture thinking is required in the workplace.

“Decide which mountains you’re willing to die on,” she says. “At the end of the day, nobody really cares if meetings are catered by company A or B, so you don’t want to get bent out of shape over things that are ultimately immaterial.”

Put yourself in their shoes

Forbes-Chilibeck says employees and bosses in dysfunctional relationships often appear to exist in “parallel universes.”

“They can be in the same meeting, hear the same discussion, and review the same materials but come out with completely divergent views on what took place,” she explains. “This seems to come from the fact that we all have different backgrounds, and sometimes competing interests.

“Employees may not understand the pressure being exerted on managers by their own supervisors, while bosses don’t always have a clear view of the full implications of what they’re asking a worker to do,” Forbes-Chilibeck says.

But if a more junior worker spends some time figuring out the goals of a new manager, they may be pleasantly surprised, she says.

“Often, that new boss sees their current position as a stepping stone toward the next promotion. Sometimes if you are in a difficult relationship, the best approach is to help them toward achieving that promotion.  The goal may be to simply outlast the new boss,” Forbes-Chilibeck says.  

Keep notes

Just in case things take a turn for the worse and one or both sides end up resorting to litigation, Forbes-Chilibeck says contemporaneous notes can prove invaluable.

“A clear chronology of events can be very useful for determining where things went sideways, and what efforts were made to repair or avoid damage,” she says.

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