How to Handle an Employee Who Denies Responsibility
There are times when information about what someone has said or done gets back to us via a third party. We haven’t observed the event firsthand but we’re pretty sure it could have happened. The conundrum is whether we have a conversation with the person in question or not. We hesitate because in this scenario it would involve having to say where the information originated. So we’d hear something like, “who said that”.
It’s best if we are able to observe the performance ourselves and not involve a third party but clearly that’s not always possible. Leaders at all levels are busy and can’t be all-knowing. So what should happen? Because we can’t always observe performance firsthand we have to rely on feedback from others. So it’s perfectly ok to say, something like, "Because I can’t be all places at all times I do rely on feedback from others and I solicit this information on a regular basis."
“Well, who said that about me?” The important thing here is to ask whether the incident did or didn’t take place. Listen to the employee’s explanation. If there is a flat-out denial yet you suspect that the incident did occur then just concede. Concede by saying something like, “I’m very relieved to hear that wasn’t the case because I’d have been really disappointed.”
There’s no use in having a “yes, you did, no, I didn’t” conversation. If the incident didn’t take place then the employee is off of the hook, as he/she should be. And if there was some truth to what occured and the employee didn't take ownership of the issue then at least he/she knows that you know. It will then be less likely to occur again.
So what if you keep hearing reports of the same behavior or performance? First rule out that the person(s) reporting the behavior doesn't have an ax to grind. At this point you really have to escalate the conversation and communicate that this information has now gotten back to you numerous times. And if you can, it’s best to put yourself in a position to observe the performance firsthand.