Difficult conversations in the workplace


From time to time, it’s inevitable you’ll need to have a difficult conversation at work. This may be to explain to an employee why they’ll miss out on a promotion or wage increase. It could even be to let them know they could face redundancy. But as a business owner, how do you or your line managers approach handling difficult conversations? This guide explains everything you need to know.

What’s a difficult conversation?

It’s where your business has to address an employee in a challenging conversation. You must handle emotions and information carefully to ensure you avoid upsetting the individual, which could lead to legal problems. Examples of difficult conversations in the workplace are as follows:

  • An employee upset they’ve missed a promotion.
  • A staff member challenging you over a wage increase request.
  • Having to question an employee over difficult behaviour (such as gross misconduct or absenteeism).
  • Addressing continued poor performance.
  • Dealing with personal problems (such as illness or family issues).
  • Tackling clashes between colleagues.

While the above are fairly standard examples, keep in mind it’s impossible to plan out for every possibility. You can’t always predict what’s going to happen, so keep an open mind and be ready with a strategy to adopt no matter the situation.

Managing difficult conversations in the workplace

HR and difficult conversations will happen—there’s no avoiding it with the nature of the business world. Depending on your type of industry, they may be regular or irregular occurrences. If it’s the former, then having hard conversations can become easier to deal with over time. However, if it’s the latter and it’s uncommon, it can be stressful for you and your managers. This is a topic that’s even addressed in films, with Up In The Air (2009) focussing on a business that helps other businesses lay off staff. So it’s a topic often at the back of a business’ mind, but one that is an occasional, necessary evil of business life. But in managing these conversations, it’s important to remember you approach each conversation fairly and with employee confidentiality in mind. Despite there being so many types of difficult conversations in the workplace you may have to face, you can still maintain a procedure to follow when dealing with a stressful discussion. With your employee, you should be:

  • Direct.
  • Specific.
  • Considerate.
  • Ready with a solution.
  • Prepared to answer questions.

With the above in mind, you should manage your expectations for your discussion. Prepare thoroughly for various eventualities so that you’re not caught off guard, but also so that you know your legal standing. This is particularly important if you need to lay off the employee. If you have a good relationship with your staff prior to any bad news, then having difficult conversations in the workplace can be a lot easier. As such, you should hold regular one-to-ones and meetings with your employees to develop a good relationship with them. This will then make discussing problems with them at a later date easier. And remember, before addressing an issue, make sure that the issue identified really is a problem. Speak to your management before going ahead to hold a discussion with the staff member in question.

Need more help?

Like further assistance with this challenging topic? You can contact us for immediate advice: 0800 028 2420.

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