Starting difficult conversations: top tips for managers

There are some HR conversations you’d rather avoid. You know the ones…

The ones you keep putting off because you’re worried about how your employee will react. The ones that make you nervous about saying the wrong thing. And the ones riddled with legal risk if you accidentally make a misstep.

There’s no two ways about it. Every employer will at some point need to have a difficult conversation with a member of staff.

It might be about health concerns, to address or discuss allegations of bullying and harassment, raising concerns about standards of work, dealing with requests for pay rises, or something totally different, but no matter how awkward it may feel to broach these topics, it’s important that you do, and in a timely matter too.

Jenny Marsden, Associate Director of Service at BrightHR, says “Firstly, it’s important to make sure the setting is appropriate. You don’t want your employees divulging personal details in the middle of the cafeteria at lunch time, or to be flagging up capability issues within earshot of clients.

“Find a place that’s private and allocate adequate time so that discussion doesn’t need to be rushed. Remove all distractions like mobile phones and adopt effective listening techniques, making eye contact.

“Jot down important things the employee says so you can refer to them later if need be. Taking notes in with you of what you want to say can also help, so that you stay on track and include everything you want to. Try not to interrupt the employee but do ask relevant questions.

“Depending on the subject matter, it may have the potential to get heated. Remain calm and professional, even if the employee does not, for example, if they become accusatory or raise their voice.

“Lastly, remember to focus on the behaviour and not the person and to remain objective and non-judgemental at all times.”

Challenges may also arise where conflict is present in the workplace.

Conflict is a normal, inescapable part of life that we all have to deal with on a daily basis, whether in the working environment or in our social lives. But it can negatively impact workplace productivity and morale, and scupper employee relations.

Jenny says that conflict is not necessarily damaging: “If managed correctly, conflict can actually post an opportunity to understand opposing preferences, points of views and values, and instead, generate ideas. That said though, it can be tricky to navigate these situations. You might be scared of saying the wrong thing. Or of inciting further conflict.

“That’s where mediation can come in. It’s a structured process where each party has the ability to tell their story and share their concerns uninterrupted. Then, the parties, with the support of a mediator, work towards a mutually acceptable solution, setting out ways this can be achieved. This can be a great tool for smoothing out clashes between your staff.”


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