Handling difficult conversations: what every manager needs to know

A manager addressing some issues with his employee

Maintaining workplace happiness can sometimes mean entering into difficult conversations with employees in order to offer support or resolve conflicts. Being able to handle the situation with sensitivity, open-mindedness and proactivity is a skill that will ultimately ensure you retain talent, while maintaining a harmonious company culture. Here are some basic tips for approaching and managing difficult conversations with your employees.

What’s the HR procedure for difficult conversations?

There are guidelines surrounding what is and isn’t appropriate when initiating a difficult conversation with a member of your team. Before you think about reaching out to your employee to schedule a meeting, touch base with your company HR Manager. They can help you familiarise yourself with the processes that are specific to your organisation so you can avoid overstepping the mark or inadvertently breaking HR procedure and potentially making an already difficult situation far worse.

Types of difficult conversations in the workplace

The need to have a serious one-on-one conversation with an employee is commonly caused by three major types of issue: complaints and grievances, personal concerns, and poor performance. Here are some examples of difficult conversations with employees and potential ways to resolve each.

  • Complaints and grievances

Complaints and grievances can be caused by members of staff repeatedly clashing, employee role/company dissatisfaction, or the wish to flag a troubling incident.

Complaints and grievances can be solved with basic conflict resolution and with the simple act of listening. As manager, you should seek to provide multiple options and solutions for the issue so that your employee feels trusted and empowered.

  • Personal concerns

Personal issues include everything from bereavement to money troubles and mental/physical health problems. It’s worth noting that employees may not always be forthcoming with regard to issues of a personal nature, so it’s important to look out for any warning signs, such as tiredness, a dip in performance or uncharacteristic behaviour.

If you’re preparing for a difficult conversation with an employee regarding personal issues, it’s helpful to go into the meeting knowing which resources are on offer, through the company or government, which can provide additional support. For example, NHS services, loan repayment options or compassionate leave can all help alleviate employee stress.

  • Poor performance

This is defined by employees consistently missing targets, not meeting objectives set out in their coaching sessions or failing to contribute to the wellbeing of the team with a proactive, positive attitude.

Poor performance can have many contributing factors. Our report It’s time we all work happy™: The secrets of the happiest companies and employees shows that employees are the most content when they feel like they’re making a valuable contribution and are working towards their own career goals. If the issue of poor performance needs to be raised, think about outlining short-term targets and assessing ways to relieve the pressure on that individual. An example of this might be bringing a temporary resource in to offer additional support on workloads.

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Managing difficult conversations: your checklist

According to advice from ACAS,  it’s best to run through your own difficult conversations checklist before initiating a meeting with your employee. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Define the purpose of the conversation

This includes why you need to have the conversation and having a clear idea of what a successful resolution looks like.

  1. Check your own emotions

Your duty as a manager is to be supportive, compassionate and encouraging. It’s important that you recognise your own feelings regarding the conversation and the individual. You should try to remain neutral, helpful and unbiased at all times. If your employees feel like you aren’t receptive or anticipate a negative reaction from you, it will be far harder to maintain an open, honest dialogue with them in the future.

  1. Have a basic structure in place

Go into the conversation with a clear idea of how you’re going to raise the issue. You should also be prepared to listen to your employee, then have an action plan in place with regard to working towards an amicable, mutually agreed outcome.

  1. Give them time to prepare

Your employee has the right to know that they will be called into a meeting. It will give them time to prepare themselves and gather any materials they might need to support their case. Dropping a difficult conversation out of the blue can only serve to make the situation far more tense.

Regardless of the kind of issues you’re helping your employees with, it’s beneficial to ensure your always remain available to listen to their concerns, or to touch base with them proactively afterwards. Each conversation will then become another step towards a happier, more productive team.

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