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How to handle difficult conversations with employees

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Let’s face it – no one likes conflict, but if you supervise teams of people or work in HR, you will be ambushed by tricky management issues and will need to have difficult conversations with employees…

Issues such as dressing inappropriately for work, questionable personal hygiene, offensive language and leaving dirty dishes for others to wash up can cause some managers to become hesitant in engaging in these types of conversations. They are unsure as to how to approach the situation and often worry how particular employees will react – get it wrong and the employee may get upset and work less effectively or they may lodge a grievance. However, if you get it right, performance levels and employee engagement might improve.

Before the conversation

First and foremost, it is important to document conflicts and have policies in place for certain situations – it is very difficult to enforce rules and guidelines if they were never set in the first place. For example, if you have an employee who is frequently wearing inappropriate clothing to work then it is important you have a clear dress code policy which outlines the dos and don’ts of office attire.

Secondly, it is most probably the case that concerned employees have come to you complaining about the behaviour, dress or habits of another employee. It is therefore important you steer clear of the temptation to amplify this feedback by explaining it has been received by many, or excusing yourself of any responsibility for the complaints by asserting that other employees have raised concerns. This will increase the embarrassment of the employee receiving the feedback and will likely damage relationships and the atmosphere in the workplace.

It therefore follows that it is extremely important that you do your homework! Being prepared can go a long way to making you, and the employee concerned, feel more at ease. It wouldn’t be fair to the employee if you addressed them based purely on other colleagues’ observations. It is important to do a little investigating and gather some evidence to accompany the concerns being raised. A lack of preparation won’t help the employees’ growth and more importantly you probably won’t get the result you need. 

During the conversation

It is worth thinking carefully about the way you communicate with employees. Using supportive and encouraging gestures, such as smiles and nods of the head, suggest you are engaging and listening and makes employees feel a little less interrogated, especially when you don’t want to come across too formal. Asking appropriate questions, but avoiding interrupting, is another way to help the situation seem less like a telling off and more like a casual chat between work colleagues.

Having said this, however, it is important that you take control of the conversation. It can be difficult to control your emotions, especially if the employee becomes confrontational and defensive, or worse, if they throw an accusation at you. A helpful way of doing this is to remain objective and focused on the issue that the employee has created and not the employee themselves. Nevertheless, it is important to note that being in control is not about finding an overall winner and loser. You must be prepared to discuss and negotiate as it will encourage the employee to agree a way forward, which will benefit both parties. 

After the conversation

Ideally following the conversation, you will agree a plan moving forward to address (and ultimately) resolve the problem. However, what happens if, as a result of the conversation, the employee raises a grievance against you? If this is the case, you should consult your company’s internal policies and procedures for handling grievances. These should contain the correct guidance for you to follow and will assist you in any action that you intend to take.

Although it can be difficult to face these sorts of problems in fear of damaging relationships in the workplace or upsetting colleagues, it is far better to nip problems in the bud, rather than waiting for them to become more established or complex.

Chris Cook

By Chris Cook

Chris is a partner and head of employment at SA Law

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