During a town hall meeting a few years ago, I witnessed, first-hand, the worst possible response to a tough employee question.
The employees at this location, about 800 of them, were primarily hourly workers at the local call center. Up to this point, most of the questions from the floor centered on the overall industry, competition and new product releases. Pretty standard fare for this type of session, and the executives on the panel handled themselves with their characteristic poise and candor.
That all changed when a women, about five months pregnant, stood to ask her question.
She told the panel that she rode the bus to work and that the only affordable option for daycare was near her home, about an hour’s ride and two transfers away from the job site. She mentioned that many of her co-workers were also having difficulty juggling child care with shift hours. And she asked, “Will we ever get a daycare center onsite?”
The executive’s answer: “No.”
No expression of empathy. No acknowledgement of her struggles. Just “no.”
The audience was, to say the least, not pleased with the way that question was answered. In fact, the mood of the room deteriorated rapidly, and we’re lucky we made it out in one piece.
So what would have been a better response?
Well, for starters, it would have been good to show some genuine appreciation for the employee and her coworkers who dealt with work-life balance issues on a daily basis, yet still managed to put up impressive customer satisfaction scores.
And maybe the executive could have talked about fact that daycare was far outside the company’s core offerings, and that anything as precious as a child should be cared for by highly-skilled professionals.
At the very least, the executive could have thanked the employee for her question, and requested that he be allowed time to give such an important decision the thought it deserved. Later, after engaging local management in a fact-finding and discussion, he could follow up with that location to explain the company’s decision not to offer onsite daycare.
But he didn’t.
Moral of the story – before answering a tough question from employee, take a minute to think about what motivated the question. In many instances, the employee isn’t looking for an immediate solution – just an acknowledgement that his/her concerns are valid and that the company cares.
Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level. Email her at email@example.com.