bob gilson

Conducting a Problem Intake Meeting: Structuring the Monkey By Bob Gilson

OK. So, What’s a problem intake meeting?

Employees invariably want to meet with a decision maker to lay on them a complaint the person wants resolved.  These meetings range in formality from “I’m not happy” to “this is a grievance meeting and here’s my union steward” to “I’m filing an X and this is my lawyer”.  No matter the law or regulation allowing or requiring the meeting or whether you just want to hear the person out, everybody who has a problem wants a decision from you and they usually want it now.

Over the years, I’ve suggested to executives and other decision makers that these folks all have one thing in common.  They’ve got this monkey on their back and want to pass it to you.  So, What’s the problem?  Problems are often very much like monkeys.  Curious George aside, monkeys, as a rule, are wild, smell bad, bite and are mostly not house broken.  In other words, like employee problems, can be very nasty critters to be around.  This is to say that you really don’t want someone else’s monkey unless it has been cleaned up, tamed, house broken and muzzled.  I’ve got some suggestions in this regard.

Before You Meet

Privacy is a sign of respect as is setting a time when the meeting won’t be interrupted.  This lets the employee know that his/her problem has your undivided attention.  If you have an idea what is going to be discussed, prepare a list of questions and if a rule is involved, read it before you go.

The Meeting

The employee asked to meet so they carry the burden of providing information, not you.  Remember that this is an intake meeting so you should not drive the discussion except as discussed below.  If you must be in control, let someone else conduct the meeting.  A mentor of mine once upbraided me for “talking during my listening time”.  This is your listening time.  Let the employee tell their story and carry out whatever plan they have for the meeting.  Most will have given considerable thought to what they’re going to say.  When they appear to be done, ask if they are.  Do not take notes during their story, just sit back and listen.

When the employee is done, the meeting is yours.  First and foremost, do not offer a solution or answer during the meeting.  You need time to think about what you’re going to do and the consequences.  I suggest you move forward with a series of questions, taking notes on the employee’s answers as you go.  These questions generally are:

  • Let’s go back to the problem.  Would you go over it again for me? For you to attempt to address a problem, it should be clearly articulated.  Ask questions on things said that you don’t understand.  Before you move on, tell the employee what you heard the problem was and ask if that’s correct.  If not get clarification until when you state the employee’s version of the problem, he/she agrees that you’ve got it.  Never argue, listen, write, feed it back and confirm at this point.
  • What facts do you think are relevant? Go over any fact claimed by the employee with the appropriate who? What? Where? When? Once the facts appear complete from his/her perspective, read them out and ask if the employees if these are the facts he/she believes to be true and relevant.
  • What do you want? This is the part of the meeting where you need the most control.  Let the employee tell you what resolution is being requested and read it back. Ask if you’ve got it.  If not go over it until the employee says you’ve got it.
  • Why should I do that?  There’re lots of ways to ask this question such as why are you entitled to that? Where does it say that’s your right, etc.  regardless of how you ask it make sure that whatever the reason, you write it down and get confirmation. Again, this is no time to argue, correct, etc.  It’s time to let the employee get out their concerns and hear them out.
  • What about a representative? If the employee is represented, the representative might try to solicit an opinion or facts or even start an argument.  Your answer to that behavior is that you’re there to hear the employee out and that you’ll provide an answer after due consideration. 

Always thank the employee for coming to see you and having an honest talk.  The meeting is over, so move along.  Don’t have any further conversation as it will send a mixed message on the importance of the meeting.

Next Steps

  1. Develop a typed record of the meeting that includes the problem, the facts, the resolution and the reasons supporting the resolution from the employee’s perspective and send to the employee with the question: Does this accurately reflect your statements to me at the meeting?  If not, please provide me a corrected version by close of business tomorrow.
  2. Examine the issue.  Are the facts correct? Is the justification for the resolution sound and accurate?  What do the rules, labor contract, policy and practice have to say about it?  Consult your friendly human resource advisor for their thoughts on all of it.  If legal issues are involved, talk to the lawyers and hear what they have to say.
  3. Does the employee deserve a resolution?  If so what’s fair and reasonable.  If you’re in a formal process, never give partial relieve either grant or deny the request.  Get help writing a response to the employee.

The Main Consideration

As said in Puzo’s Godfather, “It’s nothing personal, just business”.  Always remember that you are representing Uncle Sam in all this.  Whatever you may think about the employee’s motivations for pushing an issue, it is the government’s issue so put your best official face on, bull your neck and get on with it.  If you do the above successfully, you’ll have tamed the monkey.  My experience is that most employees want an objective hearing and in many cases, go away satisfied knowing you actually listened to them, took them seriously and heard their concerns.

As always, this advice reflects my views and experience, not necessarily those of SEA. 

Bob Gilson is an Agency management representative, formerly a Federal employee, now a contractor.  He can be reached at


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Tags: Managers Corner, performance management

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