We Need to Talk: How to Handle Tough Conversations with Your Employees

BlogHR Advice Posted: Thursday 7th May 2015 by

There is a time in the professional life of any manager that most of us dread. A time when a situation, or someone’s behaviour at work needs to be nipped in the bud, to improve office life in general and make things more comfortable for the wider team.

This is the time to push back the nagging apprehension and tackle the problem head on, before the toxic behaviour, below standard performance, or unacceptable conflict simply gets out of hand.

According to the 2015 Workplace Trends – a collaborative report from Acas, CIPD and HRZone – the third priority in the five areas for discussion on the HR agenda this year, should be managing conflict. The report states that conflict management needs to be seen as a high value activity, especially as line managers may lack the confidence to deal with issue, and HR teams may be risk adverse.

Handling a tough workplace conversation, be it conflict or performance based, requires a great deal of skill, especially as it is against our natural instincts to get caught up in someone else’s issues. Get it wrong and you could land yourself with a grievance, a much more complicated situation, or an employee that misinterprets your intentions. Get it right, however, and the situation should be steered towards a sensible and swift resolution.

Be Clear on the Objective


Before sitting down with the employee in question, be clear on your objective and question your own attitude to the situation. If you feel negatively towards the employee then your own perceptions may influence the conversation and you could portray a condescending, rather than supportive attitude. If you feel positively towards them, you could end up skirting around the issue rather than confronting it, through fear of causing offence.

Remain rational and neutral; first and foremost, you will need to acknowledge the problem at hand and how you plan to resolve it. It will help to jot down a list of your objectives and desired outcomes prior to the discussion, and mentally tick them off as each one is discussed.

Manage EmotionsManaging Emotions


The workplace can be an emotional hazard, filled with multiple, complex personalities. During a difficult conversation with an employee, it’s important to recognise your own emotions (frustration / annoyance at having to deal with the situation in the first place), as well as those of the employee (threatened and defensive at being called up in front of the boss, or HR).

It is important to prove to the employee that you have heard and taken on board their side of the story. Emotionally intelligent leaders listen to what their employees have to say and help them to re-centre by injecting positivity into the conversation – highlight why they are good at their job and show compassion by asking how they are feeling about their current situation, be it current workload, or the attitude of colleagues towards them etc.

Plan the Next Steps


Finally, be sure to set out a clear strategy to achieve your objective. If the employee is underperforming, then talk through a plan of action to support their improved performance, and most importantly, what they should do to help themselves. If the employee has behavioural issues in the workplace, then discuss how this might be overcome, whilst taking their point of view into consideration. If the employee is taking too much time off work, then be sure to uncover the reason why – once you are armed with the right information, then the situation can dramatically improve. Most importantly, follow it all up in writing so you both have a copy of the agreed action plan.

There are of course situations that will never get better and that require an alternative approach, but a carefully considered and emotionally intelligent conversation to bring it all out in the open will help you better prepare for the next time.

Still Need Help?

Human Results offer expert HR services on retainer, or on a one-off basis to help guide you through the daily challenges of managing your business from a people perspective.

We also provide expert leadership development coaching programmes to secure long-term capability within your organisation, and a critical support structure for your leaders.

For more information, call Human Results on 01952 288361 for a no obligation, confidential discussion.   

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