Approach to Difficult ConversationsWe all have to have difficult discussions with employees from time to time – it may be a conversation leading to dismissal or disciplinary action, a discussion about someone’s health issues, their performance, or where they are facing possible redundancy.


Over the years I have seen managers shy away from these types of conversations, however not having the conversations at all will result in making matters worse and the issue deteriorating impacting the individual and the company’s productivity as the negativity fallout filters through other employees. Therefore, it is essential that someone else has the conversation on their behalf if they feel that they can’t. 


I am frequently asked to either have the conversation or sit in the conversation to support and mediate. I am asked to do this as the Manager has concerns which may be as a result for example due to time pressures, friendship, lack of confidence, the need to maintain fairness and transparency. Managers are also afraid of ‘getting it wrong’ which could lead to greater problems.


However, here I would like to offer some tips to enable you to hold these conversations with more confidence and to get the right result.


1. Remove the emotion from the situation: Talking to someone when you yourself are angry, upset, frustrated, fed up with them, or with any other emotion running high is always going to lead to trouble. Wait until you are calm and can approach the challenge with a clear head so that you can be fully in control. You can show empathy in a situation, however, not to become emotionally involved. In the example of disciplinary situation where you feel you have been offended or betrayed, it is unlikely you can undertake the investigation and disciplinary hearing proceedings with clear judgement and without prejudice – this is where someone else should assist and take forward the meeting.

2. Decide on the best approach: One size does not fit all, even where there is a policy or procedure you are following. People will react differently depending on their circumstances. Someone who might usually be a strong and dominant individual in normal circumstances might react very differently when, for example, talking about their health or other personal issues. Similarly, a very timid and shy person might become infuriated and defensive if they are accused of something or if their performance is criticised.


3. Carefully prepare: Whether you are going to have a conversation in person or on the ‘phone, or even simply communication by letter or email, you need to carefully prepare what you are going to say. 
If it is a letter or email, think about the strength of words and language that is being used and the tone of the communication, even where it has been prepared by HR or a solicitor. Equally take time to prepare the letter or email – how often have you heard that when you are angry do not right an email in response as it is likely to be unbalanced in its nature.


Ask yourself, is it too confrontational? Does it imply that you suspect the employee of not being honest when the matter has yet to be investigated? Is it abrupt or not particularly informative? Even dismissal letters can be written with compassion and empathy. If you can, put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving the letter and write it with total regard for their self-respect and well-being.


Meetings are much more difficult to prepare for, however they must remain factual and focused on the purpose and outcome. First look at the current situation – who they are, there general approach and personality in the work-place, are you aware of any specific stresses or anxieties that they are facing. All of these factors can contribute to how you should handle the conversation and how the conversation will be received.


4. Be clear about the outcome you want to achieve: Think of the outcome you want to achieve. Is that outcome realistic given the individual and the information you have at hand? Understanding the position to be discussed from the individual’s perspective and what they may or may not buy into. Can the outcome be achieved in an informal way?


5. Deliver your message calmly and with your goal in mind: Firstly, ensure that your goal is realistic, and where necessary deliver the message cautiously. If it is a meeting due to poor performance which could lead towards dismissal proceedings, the conversation requires to be focused on the concerns of performance providing evidence to support this. When listening to the response, ensure that you can recognise that reasonable support has been provided to the individual. This will lead to a correct judgement of next steps of action.


6. Review: In more complex situations you will need to carefully review the position before taking any final decisions. It may be that further steps are necessary before you can achieve your goal or that a different route is followed or even that you should focus on another goal.


I always ensure that those I support always take stock when reviewing a disciplinary cases, a potential redundancy dismissal and before any grievance outcome is confirmed. It is a chance to consider all the options. That you are making judgement without any pre-conceived views or ideas.

The pause is a vital ‘breathing space’ to enable you to think carefully about the next step – and do so without emotion and any knee jerk reaction. It is also a chance to consider other possible options, such as mediation, giving a lesser warning, provide the employee a further opportunity to sort them self out, looking at settlement agreements or talking to ACAS.


You need to able to clearly explain your decision, based on the facts and the evidence available to you – all extracted from the difficult conversation. This is the remaining test as to whether or not your decision or action would be considered ‘reasonable’ or not, in the eyes of someone else – usually an Employment Judge.


In Summary

How we tackle difficult discussions, or indeed not having them at all has a major impact on the outcomes we see in our business – have we resolved the conflict and created a stage for everyone to move forward together, or have we escalated the conflict to the point where it has become unbearable and everything deteriorates, from mental and physical health to team productivity and success/profits? 


Have we created a winning situation for both the company and the employee, or a ‘win/lose’ situation for either party? Every single issue, however difficult it may appear to be, is resolvable by having good, honest, but difficult conversations, which puts your business at minimum risk of escalating disputes and/or increasing the risk of employment tribunal awards.


Equally avoiding conversations altogether can only gradually lead to a culture of apathy, disregard and deterioration in productivity as the negativity and lack of respect for Managers seeps its way through the roots of the company. 

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