Top tips for difficult conversations with staff

Top tips for difficult conversations with staff

Managers often put off having difficult conversations with staff.

This stems from a fear of the employee’s reaction, a dislike of confrontation, a worry about the impact of the conversation on the employment relationship, and a lack of knowledge about how to deal with the issue.

What could be a difficult conversation?

Managers may find it hard to talk about a range of different topics, such as under performance, poor conduct, grievances, personal issues, pay issues, potential redundancy situations, etc. The list goes on and on.

Each situation will require specific particular action, but generally it is worth thinking about:

1  When to act

When an issue arises, you should avoid any knee jerk reactions and having a conversation when angry or emotions are running high. But it’s equally important that you do not delay the chat unnecessarily as it is likely that the problem will escalate. You need to find the right time and act.

2  Be prepared

It’s essential that you know your policies and gather the facts before sitting down with the employee.

For example, in your sickness absence policy, it is typical for there to be benchmarks, known as trigger points, for unacceptable levels of short and frequent sickness absence. If you are having a chat with an employee about their absences, you need to have accurate records and know whether they have reached these trigger points.

3  Decide on the aim of the conversation

You should have it clear what the desired outcome of the conversation is and you should prepare with that objective in mind.

Perhaps it’s to simply make the employee aware of a problem. For example, they may have not realised that their choice of clothes is in violation of the dress code, so you can remind them of the policy and what is considered to be acceptable dress to work. Or they may not realise that their constant gossiping is causing problems to team dynamics.

Or it may be to break some difficult news to the employee. For example, the aim of the meeting may be to tell them you have refused their request for flexible working or warn them of the potential of redundancy.

It may also be to obtain an apology, talk through a grievance they have raised, discuss if anything is troubling them or to get them to agree to a change.

4  Control your emotions

It’s vital to keep your emotions in check in the meeting. Inside, you may feel defensive, aggressive or frustrated, but you should try to keep calm and professional at all times.

Equally if you have a close working relationship with the employee in question, you may find it embarrassing to broach certain topics, for example dealing with their poor personal hygiene. So leave your personal feelings at the door.

5  Keep an open mind

In the meeting, you will need to listen to the employee. They may say things that surprise you, for example, you may find out the real reason they are not performing is because they have been dealing with a bereavement.

6  Try and reach a common agreement

It’s also important to find solutions to the problem, not just cast blame. If an employee is constantly late and they have a blasé attitude to it,  make it clear they need to fix it or they may face disciplinary action. If they are late because of childcare reasons, perhaps you could think about some flexible working arrangements.

7  Keep an eye out on the situation

Usually, one simple talk is enough. If it doesn’t achieve the results you want, you need to go through the process again and take further action.

Having these awkward conversations may be difficult, but with planning and thought, you can avoid the sleepless nights and carry them out with confidence.

If you are with Ellis Whittam, you should always talk to your Employment Law Adviser when confronted with these situations.

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