Employment law - Difficult conversations

Managers who avoid 'difficult conversations' with staff will only create bigger problems for themselve

  • Date: 25 May 2012

IN the course of developing and presenting some new training courses for managers I have become increasingly aware that the gap between the theory and practice of resolving staff problems can centre on the confidence some managers feel about having “difficult” conversations.

Many people I speak to who are seeking advice or guidance about employment law and HR management issues understand that early intervention, through discussion of a concern regarding a staff member’s performance, conduct or attendance, can be crucial in resolving the problem. However, the perception that the discussion is going to be heated, stressful or challenging often leads managers to delay such interventions.

Ironically, many managers I advise admit that procrastination frequently results in the eventual meeting with the employee being even more challenging than they initially feared. In many cases, they recognise that if they had acted sooner, the conversation may not have been so fraught.

Similarly, informal concerns raised by an employee may not be properly discussed if a manager fears the process will raise “difficult” issues. The issue is then glossed over and the matter remains unresolved. The result is likely to be an escalation of the matter to a formal grievance – with potential attendant stress for both employee and manager.

So how do I reassure managers that they should bite the bullet and start these difficult conversations as soon as they suspect a problem exists? The answer lies in preliminary investigation and analysis, planning and the deployment of some simple interpersonal skills techniques.

While it won’t guarantee that the conversation will be plain sailing, following these basic steps could potentially allow the manager to remain in control, which would clearly improve the chances of achieving a successful resolution.

As a first step in resolving staff problems, it is useful to take time to analyse the background to the matter. Often this reveals that the source of the problem lies in the organisation’s own policies, bureaucracy, management practice or external factors. With this information in mind, the manager can speak to the employee and acknowledge the role played by the relevant organisational factors and provide reassurance that little or no blame lies with the staff member. This method allows the heat in the conversation to be moderated and the discussion can concentrate on how the two parties can proceed together in the future. This is certainly preferable to the manager ignorantly assuming the employee is a troublemaker or serial complainer and setting up an inevitable clash at a disciplinary or grievance meeting.

Similarly, if the manager has, through preliminary investigation, gathered some background about the employee’s personal circumstances or work history they may avoid jumping to conclusions about where blame lies in a particular situation.

Advance planning of the meeting is another important part of the process that can help the manager feel more confident about the prospect of handling conflict when the parties get together. Such simple things as deciding in advance the outcome desired by the manager can help to avoid pussy-footing around at the meeting. Producing concrete evidence, documents, facts and figures will ensure that, if the manager meets fierce vocal resistance to their attempts to raise their concerns with the staff member, they can defuse the situation by placing their evidence on the table so that a calmer, more rational discussion can take place.

Above all, managers can benefit from training which provides them with some effective interview techniques. These include:

• reading the signs of frustration and conflict in meetings and defusing emotional reactions wherever possible

• getting the thorny issue on the table as early as possible (preferably in as few words as possible!)

• steering the interviewee on to problemsolving ground at the critical moment when the exploration of the issue is completed.

All this cannot guarantee a conflict-free conversation but experience tells us that deploying these techniques can narrow the scope for heated interchanges and give the manager enormous confidence – both for tackling the matter early and for steering the process towards a constructive conclusion.

For more information about Law At Work’s training programme for managers visit: www.lawatwork.co.uk/in-house-training

Ian Watson is training services manager at Law At Work


This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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