Problem Solving at Work

You are joining us on a new and exciting journey, on which we will learn how to use employment legislation to help us solve problems that sometimes arise in the workplace.  Giving you the confidence to make our people's experience of Jack Wills as amazing as possible despite being in the face of problems, the Problem Solving at Work aspects of Jack Wills' Manage Your Team learning are designed to help you manage your people in the context of a complex legal environment and in a pragmatic, sensible, culturally-sensitive way.

Before we bring it to life, there is some really important information you need to know.  You're not expected to know everything at once; we know that you will need different methods to help you learn everything.  So complete this short eLearn and you'll be well on the way to being proficient in all things employment law!  

Good luck, and see you on the day!

Your People Experience Team


Problem Solving at Work

Let's look at the law and good practice on dealing with potential or actual problems caused by an employee's behaviour.  In legal terms, this is "misconduct."  (We are going to try and avoid using too much legal language, because we believe in being a little more positive!)

In this section, you will gain a brief insight into the methods of problem solving we can employ at Jack Wills, regardless of the problem at hand.

So what's the problem?

It's often interesting to note how different managers perceive different behaviours.  For example, one manager may consider lateness as "something that just happens sometimes."  Others might say, "never be late; lateness is breaking the rules."  And then there are a whole host of interpretations in between.  

So what's right, and what's wrong?

This is where it gets interesting.  There actually is no "right" or "wrong" answer.  This means we have to consider a number of things to work out whether there really is a problem or not.

The first thing to consider is "what is a problem?"

A "problem" is something that has a negative impact on something else.  So if being late is causing a problem to the running of your business - whether you're in Merchandising, Finance, a store or our Distribution Centre - then lateness is a problem.  But, if there's flexibility and you've agreed in your team that work time is a bit more "fluid" - and the job is getting done on time and to the right standard - then it might not be considered a problem.

So what next?

If it is a problem, we have to establish the cause.  Is it the person's ability to organise themselves, or the way they think about their work?  Could it be that they are simply unable to tell the time?  In legal terms, we need to understand whether the cause of the problem relates to the employee's "conduct" (their choices/decisions/chosen behaviour) or "capability" (relating to their qualification or physical/intellectual capacity.)  Here are some examples.

Either: Or:
The person is making an effort but is not achieving the level or standard of performance required. The person does not make enough effort.
They have received relevant training but they do not appear to have acquired the necessary skills. They are choosing not to apply the skills they have.
They accept that they are not achieving the required standards. They do not agree on the problem identified.
They cannot obtain relevant qualifications. They are not interested in obtaining relevant qualifications.
They do not seem able to get there. They do not seem willing to get there.
Low output of work. They do not seem interested in improving.
Long-term sickness. "Unauthorised absences" that are short term and persistent, without any underlying medical condition(s).

And what do I do about it?

The opportunities are truly endless.

Using the lateness example, we would normally start with a conversation with the individual to:

  • ask them what's causing the problem, and 
  • re-set the expectation (good leadership requires that we do this at the outset so this should merely be a reminder!)

All too often we hear about leaders who don't address the issue casually, informally and gently - only to be stung later when the problem gets completely out of hand and we have to start all over again before we can do what really needs to happen (which sometimes means ending our relationship with the person.)  The law helps us here because it enables us to positively and proactively seek improvement and engage our people with our team, our brand and their contribution to Jack.

How to have this conversation, you ask.  Well, it is surprisingly simple:

  1. You tell the individual that there is a problem,
  2. you explain gently why it's a problem, and
  3. you ask them a question - "what is it that makes you late?"  (Let's try avoiding "why-based" questions because they can sometimes come off as being a little on the aggressive side.)  

Asking questions can be incredibly powerful.  If you ask a question, you may be surprised by the answer.

Imagine the response you receive is "I care for my sick, elderly mother and she often needs things just as I'm leaving the house to come to work.  This puts me behind and I'm really sorry."  And then they cry...

Or on the contrary, imagine the response you receive is "I don't actually care about working for Jack Wills as I started my own business last year and it's just really taken off so I only come here to keep my product discount."

Think about those two responses. How would you deal with each of them?


What's in a question?

"Crap in, crap out," is a popular truth, often said in relation to computer systems: If you put the wrong information in, you'll get the wrong information out.

The same principle applies to communications in general: If you ask the wrong questions, you'll probably get the wrong answer, or at least not quite what you're hoping for.

Asking the right question is at the heart of effective communications and information exchange. By using the right questions in a particular situation, you can improve a whole range of communications skills: for example, you can gain better information and learn more; you can build stronger relationships, manage people more effectively and help others to learn too.

Before your workshop, think about the types of questions you could ask to find out why someone is behaving in a certain way, or just generally to find out more about a person or situation.

Direct, honest feedback...

PICTURE THIS...  It's the third time that you have given feedback to someone and their behaviour still hasn't changed.  How frustrating!

Giving feedback is hard enough as it is, let alone when it's not landing.  Most leaders dread doing it, and people can get really turned off if it's done badly.

You might think that it's not a big deal if you don't give feedback, but people are craving for more.  In fact, research is suggesting that more than 65% of people say that they want more feedback - and that's corrective feedback over praise!  They need it to help them improve.  The concept of constantly getting better is what truly motivates people, and well-delivered feedback helps them get there.  But an important question to ask is, if people crave feedback and want it even more than praise, why does some feedback not get listened to?

What is it about the feedback that makes an individual ignore it?  Is it the feedback deliverer?  The content of the message?  More importantly, how do we get people to listen to our feedback every single time?




Here we share a few tips but we think it's important for you to understand why feedback is so sensitive.  

Simply put, feedback is seen as a social threat.  Our brains are protective of us, and so they go out of their way to make sure we always feel like we're in the right, even if we're not.

When we receive criticism, our brain tries to protect us from the threat it perceives.

David Rock, an author behind the concept of "neuroleadership", came up with a model known as "SCARF" that explains the social threats that our brains perceive.

"SCARF" stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.  These are all psychological terms so we usually break them down to be sure that we can all understand them properly:

  • STATUS is a person's position relative to others, and if someone's status is threatened, they'll feel like you're talking down to the them.  A good way to fix this is to encourage people to give themselves feedback on their own work e.g. "How do you think that went?" and/or "If you were doing it again and could do anything differently, what might it be?"
  • CERTAINTY is all about the future - how certain you are with what's going to happen.  At work, this is related to job security.  A good way to deal with this is to set clear goals with your team and remind them of the goal(s) when you're giving them feedback.
  • AUTONOMY is about how autonomous someone feels over a project or task they're working on.  If the feedback they get is perceived as micromanaging, or reducing that autonomy, they will feel threatened.  A great way of avoiding this is to offer someone a few ways of doing something and then having them decide, so that they can maintain a genuine sense of control.
  • RELATEDNESS is how you relate to someone else and if you perceive them, quite literally, as friend or foe.  If feedback is demeaning, or is made to sound like there's been failure, someone may feel threatened.  Dealing with this requires a personal connection; when giving feedback, you can say something like "I remember when I had to do that.  I was dreadful at first but then I did 'X, Y, Z' and it improved massively."
  • FAIRNESS is all about how they perceive they are being compared to everyone else.  If they think they're getting more corrective feedback than others, they may feel threatened.  Fixing this involves making it clear that everyone is getting a similar amount of feedback - work hard to make someone feel like they're not being singled out.


Tips to getting your feedback listened to

  • Be Honest and Direct.  It's amazing how many leaders avoid giving honest and direct feedback - favouring the "shit sandwich" (excuse the language!) where you put feedback between two pieces of praise to make the feedback sound less harsh.  Just be straightforward but respectful.


  • Earn respect.  No matter how structured or polite the feedback is, if someone doesn't respect you they won't listen.  People need to feel that you have their best interests at heart; earning respect takes time, but feedback will be consistently listened to.


  • Tell them that you'll follow up quickly.  This is also good for building trust.  One of the biggest problems with feedback is that no-one thinks anyone will do anything with feedback they give.  48% of people say that they would stay with a company that asks them what they want and acts on that feedback.  If you show them that you're taking the process seriously, then they'll take it seriously too.  


  • Express your feelings.  Don't be shy; explain how the behaviour/problem is making you feel.  You want the feedback focused on the behaviour/problem not the person - it is not a personal attack and never should be.  For example, you say "when you X it makes me feel/see/think Y."  This then allows the person to empathise with you and perceive it as an honest suggestion.


  • Listen.  The more you listen, the better your ability to give effective, relevant feedback.  Research tells us that the more we listen, the better people think we are at giving feedback.  Giving relevant feedback is an important part of getting it listened to.  Listening to your people shows that you care and will help you build that trust and respect with them.




  • Set clear goals and expectations when giving feedback.  Make it specific and tie it to a specific goal, so that the person knows very clearly if they've improved how you want them to.  Without a specific goal, it becomes hard to properly evaluate what effect the change of behaviour had.



  • Do it often.  First, practice makes perfect.  You're much more likely to have feedback listened to if people are used to a culture of frequent feedback.  It's possible that people might not listen to feedback the first few times you give it, which is why creating a culture of regular feedback is so important.



  • Follow up.  Always follow up.  To hold them accountable, and also to improve long-term performance.  Research has found that leaders improved more in years when they discussed the previous year's feedback with their direct reports, than in years when they did not.  The more you follow up, the more chance you have to improve performance because you're actively monitoring it.


True or false?

  • Good listeners give feedback well.
  • Following up regularly improves long-term performance.
  • Avoid talking about yourself and your feelings when giving feedback.
  • Someone will only listen to feedback if they feel bad about something they have or have not done.
  • Direct and honest, but respectful, is best.


Simple Problem Solving (formally) at Jack Wills...

We will be moving away from a four-warning approach.  Instead, we are going to be a bit more supportive and a bit less formal, without removing the emphasis on our need to resolve problems.

We are also going to be a bit clearer about what's really going on.  How?  Read on...

You might have seen letters we've issued or the policy we've written about "disciplinary" and "grievance" situations.  We've referred to "allegation" (ouch!) and "right to be accompanied" (oooh, legalese!)  But not for much longer.  Instead, we are going to take a more normal-language (and, frankly, more human) approach.  Let's start now.  Have a go at replacing these words with slightly more "accessible" language on the next page.

How do you think we will be wording our approach now?

  • We are convening a disciplinary hearing to discuss an allegation of...
    We need to meet with you to discuss a problem with...
  • You have the right to be accompanied.
    We understand that problems at work can be difficult to resolve so you are welcome to invite a current Jack Wills colleague to support you.
  • You have the right to appeal in writing within 5 days.
    If you do not agree with the outcome of our meeting, we invite you to challenge us in writing.
  • You have been issued with a first written warning.
    We confirmed that an immediate and sustained improvement is required otherwise further problem solving attempts will need to be made.

So how does it all work? Dealing with the problem informally...

Essentially, it is the same as before.  But we are being a bit more supportive in our approach - both to the tone of the communications but also in the style of the delivery by you.

You'll have an opportunity to learn about and practice giving constructive, balanced feedback, sensitively in your workshop.  Until then, let's cover the end-to-end process as that's easier to do online.

The first stage is obviously, as it always has been, one or more informal conversations to really get to the bottom of the problem.

This stage is really about how we can work together to solve problems we have with someone's behaviour or attitude, concerns our people have about their workplace, or concerns we might have with someone's performance or general ability to do a job.

Keep your cool by keeping it casual and informal.  We often find even the biggest problems can be resolved by a very honest, meaningful conversation between leader and individual.

You will find out in your workshop how to bring this to life and what tools are available to you for support.

So how does it all work? Dealing with the problem more formally...

If after one or more informal conversations, where you've clearly reminded the individual of the expectations, the problem persists, you will need to up the ante.

In the legal guidance, this is known as the formal disciplinary stage.  For this we will need to invite the person to a meeting in writing.  The invitation needs to cover:

  • The problem that has been discussed informally and a reminder as to why it is a problem.
  • The date, time and names of attendees for the meeting.
  • That the individual is welcome to bring a current Jack Wills colleague (or a trade union representative, if they are a member of a trade union.)
  • What the outcome of the meeting might be if we are satisfied that the individual is either capable but unwilling, or incapable of performing/behaving to the required standard.

Which of the following does the letter need to include?

  • The date, time and names of attendees of the meeting.
  • The specific reason(s) the meeting is being held.
  • The potential outcome of the meeting.
  • The way the meeting will be managed.
  • A brief reminder of the why the meeting is being held.

What could the outcome(s) of a more formal meeting be?

Our new approach to problem solving at work has three potential outcomes:

  1. No action or further support without immediate consequence.
  2. Two written warnings, reminding of the expectations and clearly outlining the consequences of continued failure to perform to the required level, and dismissal with notice (paid in lieu, worked or through garden leave.)
  3. Dismissal without notice or pay in lieu of notice for extremely serious problems (gross misconduct).

It is extremely important that we thoroughly consider all of the facts before reaching any of the above outcomes.  If we are taking no formal actions (e.g. a written warning), what might the consequences of that be?  Think carefully before going through a formal process that doesn't result in a formal outcome because it may just undermine any future efforts.  Likewise, concluding with a written warning can be disengaging and worsen the problem through creating fear, paranoia or - as before - disengagement.

What should you consider when making your decision?  The above, and:

  • How much have we really supported the individual before the problem(s) arose?
  • Has anything changed for the individual?
  • What circumstances does the person talk to us about that they suggest mitigate the cause or effect of the problem?  E.g. is there something in our control but outside of their control that we can change?
  • What does the individual need to do/change/get from you to improve?
  • How long has the person worked for us before this problem arose?
  • What is their performance history like with us?
  • Is the problem really a problem, when you rationalise it?  (If not, then we really shouldn't have reached this point in the first place.)


This is a really serious situation and in most cases results in very serious action being taken, including ending our employment relationship with an individual.  Examples of what might be considered as gross misconduct include:

  • Theft, fraud or similar, attempted or committed.
  • Violence or unwarranted aggression.
  • Abuse of confidential information (e.g. breaching confidentiality or company secrets.)
  • Falsification of records.
  • Not following health and safety standards.
  • Damage to company property.
  • Bringing the brand into disrepute.
  • Abuse or being under the influence of illegal substances, or unauthorised consumption of alcohol whilst at work or on our premises.
  • Smoking in non-smoking zones.
  • Serious negligence that could or does cause loss or damage to Jack Wills or our people.
  • Insubordination.
  • Bullying, harassment, victimisation.
  • Abuse, misuse or misappropriation of the internet/email.
  • Re-selling Jack Wills product.
  • Abuse of benefits (e.g. staff discount.)

With Gross Misconduct problem(s), we have to fully investigate the problem(s) and however possible, remove any risk(s).  This might include suspending the person, it might just mean removing them from the "threat" e.g. if it potentially serious negligence in money handling, not allowing the individual to continue working with money while the investigation takes place.

True or False?

  • An individual has been promoted but doesn't seem to be meeting the requirements of the role. We should immediately move to a formal problem solving stage because they really should know better and be able to do the job.
  • Someone with five years' service and a good performance history is suddenly unable to perform. A conversation to understand the problem and reasons for the problem is more than likely going to help you resolve it with them.
  • The first time someone fails to perform, you should write to them and invite them to a formal meeting.
  • An individual has worked for us for 6 years and has stolen a product from us. We should go through a formal problem solving process which might result in their dismissal without notice or pay in lieu of notice for gross misconduct.
  • Bullying a colleague could be considered Gross Misconduct, even if it is not intentional.

What is the difference between the cause and result of a problem?

You may have been interested to note that the answer to the last question on the previous section was "True" - Bullying a colleague could be considered Gross Misconduct, even if it is not intentional.

This is a good example of how we have to consider problems in the workplace.  The cause of the problem itself may not actually be relevant.  Sometimes, we can only make judgments based on the impact or outcome of a problem.  Bullying, harassment and victimisation are great examples of this - if an individual believes they have been "bullied," whether the "bully" intended for that or not, the law considers them to have been bullied.  

The same is true of many other areas e.g. bringing the company into disrepute.  It is very difficult to prove that the company has been brought into disrepute as a result of the actions of an individual, unless we have solid proof.

How might we prove that the brand has been brought into disrepute as a result of action(s) by an individual?

  • The risk of a newspaper article being published that might lose us customers.
  • A newspaper article being published that loses us customers.
  • One or more customer complaints.
  • Suspicion that a customer might complain.

Which of the following statements is correct?

  • If I suspect gross misconduct, I have to suspend the individual as punishment.
  • If I suspect gross misconduct, I have to mitigate any risk to the business if the individual continues to work, which might include suspension (but this in itself is not considered disciplinary action.)
  • If I suspect gross misconduct, I have to immediately invite the person to a formal meeting in writing (but this in itself is not considered disciplinary action.)
  • If I suspect gross misconduct that took place out of work time but potentially impacts on our brand, I have to dismiss the individual without notice or pay in lieu of notice immediately.

At the end of an investigation and formal problem solving process, what do I do?


Regardless of what the problem is, we need to confirm the decision at the end of the meeting after fully and thoroughly considering the facts.

If we are confirming an outcome where action is required (e.g. a written warning), we do so in writing.  In that letter, we must:

  • Confirm that the meeting took place, and why.
  • Highlight that the individual's performance/behaviour will continue to be monitored.
  • Detail exactly what might happen the problem(s) persist(s) - e.g. a further formal meeting or end of employment relationship, if two meetings have been held and two warnings have already been issued.
  • Outline that the person can challenge our decision because they do not believe it was fair, reasonable or justified.

If the outcome is that the individual's relationship with us is brought to an end, whether with or without notice, we are required to very clearly outline the reason(s) for our decision.


As part of natural justice, being invited to challenge a decision is critical.  Any decision made should be open to challenge by an individual and they are invited to do this in writing to another leader within Jack Wills who was not at all involved in the original decision.

What do we have to do to close a formal process?

  • Confirm the outcome in writing.
  • Invite the individual to appeal.
  • Tell the individual what might happen if the problems carry on.
  • Remind them why we got into this situation.
  • Ask them to resign because they're going to be dismissed eventually anyway.
  • Give them a meaningful change to improve and offer all the support they need.
  • Keep a record of the whole situation on the employee's file and with the People/HR team.
  • Tell them the outcome verbally and ask them to consider whether they enjoy working here.


It's identical, but turned around...

Essentially, if an employee has a problem with us or their experience here, we ask that they speak to us informally about the problem.

What problems might our people have that we need to take seriously?

  • Terms and conditions (contracts) or policies/ways of working.
  • Concerns with health and safety or their working environment.
  • Relationships at work.
  • Bullying and harassment.
  • Change.
  • Discrimination.

Which of these might we not want to take so seriously, but should deal with casually anyway?

  • An employee's inability to find parking of a morning.
  • What we do or do not offer in the kitchens.
  • A dislike of speaking on the telephone.

Why is it important to take all "niggles" seriously?

Our aim is to make Jack Wills an amazing place where everyone loves working, and where no-one wants to leave, so it is important that we listen meaningfully to any concerns our people have.

That said, if after considering their problem it is clear that the situation is not resolvable and out of our control, we should make that clear to the individual.  Think about how you might resolve one of these problems, or at least tell them that there's nothing we can do (without being dismissive!)

  • There is a lack of car parking near their workplace.
  • They prefer pears to apples.
  • They only like granary bread and we only have white and brown.


This is exactly why we should be taking all concerns seriously.  For example, if a person's problem with not being able to find car parking relates to a disability, we should be looking to make adjustments to our policy.  That's not to say that our resolution would necessarily be to give them a parking space if one is available. But we should look at ways to resolve the problem by fulling understanding the nature of the problem and seeking a pragmatic, reasonable solution.

Another example:  What if there are religious or philosophical reasons for not eating white or brown bread?  It needs thinking about!

What if, after raising the matter informally, the person's problem isn't resolved to their satisfaction?

This is where our more formal process starts:

  1. The person writes to you, your line manager, your People/HR team or someone else in the organisation (Pete or another Director, for example) - their letter clearly outlines their concerns.
  2. We have to invite the individual to a meeting, in writing, and invite them to bring a current Jack Wills colleague (or trade union representative, if they are a member of a trade union) to support them.
  3. We have to investigate their concerns and confirm our findings (and actions, if appropriate) in writing.  We also have to give them an opportunity to challenge any decision(s) we make.

Example problem: Bullying and Harassment

Pete receives an email from an employee who has just resigned from their role as Assistant Store Manager.  The email says:

Dear Mr Williams,

I am writing to you today to report problems I had while I was in the employ of Jack Wills, the foremost being the behaviour of my immediate line manager.  I am in discussion with an employment lawyer and I have every intention of pursuing this matter at an employment tribunal - but I will wait for your response before I decide how to proceed.

I have worked in retail for over 10 years, 3 of those with Jack Wills.  I have always worked to the highest standard, and my performance ratings have always been positive.  I have a degree in Business Management, and I started my career in leadership roles after I graduated.

When I started at Jack Wills, I was trained at a store that wasn't going to be my normal workplace.  This was to make sure that I was completely trained in all of the standards and expectations of Jack Wills before the store I was employed to work in was opened.  I learned all about the company policies and the ways of working.

When my store opened, I was managed by the Store Manager, Hugo.  I hold myself and my team to high standards, and I expected that Hugo would be the same.  However, it just wasn't the case.  He was often late to work and on more than one occasion, he got "high" with the team out of hours and would arrive to work "hungover" and "on a come down".  There is unfortunately no evidence of this because the CCTV system at the time was still not installed.  But there are witnesses!  Please speak to Poppy, Adnam, Sylvester and Pearl as they witnessed this.

He constantly failed to conduct return to work meetings - how can you manage absence if you don't do those?  When I asked him, he simply told me that I should mind my own business and it was his responsibility to work out whether someone's absence was real or not.  Funny that, given he was always drinking and doing drugs with the ones who were always absent (probably hungover, I thought.)

I tried to manage these situations regardless but I was met with resistance.  I let it go because I believe I was experienced enough to deal with it differently.  Hugo then started bullying me, telling me that everyone was raising grievances.  He told me that I should just find another job because this one obviously wasn't working.  I was obviously extremely upset but I stopped managing people and started to accept the underperformance, expecting the store finances to start being impacted.

I didn't say anything to anyone about these situations because actually things started getting better.  I wasn't managing people the way I should have been, but no-one was raising grievances either.

As time went by, about two years in fact, the store performance started to slip.  We had a new area manager (Alexandrina) and she was telling Hugo and me to "buck up your fucking ideas and get some performance management in there."  Obviously I was very shocked at her tone but I started performance managing people as she suggested.  The grievances started coming again and Hugo kept taking their side.  I felt isolated and alone, and bullied again.  So I decided to resign and now I am writing to you.  I think you will find that I am a good quality retail manager and I can add a lot of value to Jack Wills but I have no option but to resign and find somewhere else to work, where my skills can be of use.

Alexandrina is a bully, Hugo is a bully and everyone at the store is a bully.  They all wanted me out from the start and only put up with me when I stopped managing them properly.  This can't be what Jack Wills expects of its people.  The moment Alexandrina and Hugo started performance managing me, to get other people performance managed, was the last straw.  

I expect you to personally look into this matter and respond to me within 24 hours.  If you do not I will go to an employment tribunal for bullying, harassment and constructive unfair dismissal.

Yours sadly,


What were Gloria's problems?

  • Bullying.
  • Harassment.
  • Working environment.
  • Leadership.
  • Not able to do the job.

How should we deal with this?

  • A full investigation into the problems that Gloria raises, including asking for information from everyone at the store in question, invite Gloria to a meeting to discuss the problems and confirm our findings to her at the meeting, and inviting her to challenge them.
  • Invite Gloria to a meeting to discuss the problems, investigate the problems that she raises, and confirm our actions/decisions in writing, inviting her to challenge them.
  • Invite Gloria to raise the matter informally with her line manager or her manager's manager.
  • Thank Gloria for her resignation and wish her well for the future.


Key thoughts before your workshop

  1. Most problems can be dealt with effectively informally and casually.
  2. Keeping your tone calm, supportive and constructive when dealing with your people is essential.
  3. You don't need to know all the answers - sometimes problems don't have single solutions.
  4. Context, environment and experience is critical when making decisions.
  5. People Experience are here to help you.

What did you think of this course?

What would you like more information on / experience of during your workshop?