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21 October 2019

That awkward conversation

That awkward conversation

Are there some awkward conversations to be had in your business, but you’re not sure where to start in communicating them? If you’re like most, you’ll probably put that conversation off for as long as possible, or even better (you may think) avoid it all together!

Well that’s the worst thing you can do, for your employees and for your business. Whether the conversation is about capability, denying a pay rise, personal hygiene, misconduct or any other ‘awkward’ topic, you must address it. By leaving it until “next time” and letting it fester, you are procrastinating and as such the situation will become harder to manage and even more awkward. 

First things first: 

  • Understand Which Element Of The Problem Is ‘Awkward’ – Break it down so it feels less daunting, then you’ll be more comfortable in delivery. It is the perception that the topic is sensitive, that it will be ill-received, or that it may cause upset that makes it ‘awkward’.
  • Don’t Procrastinate – Trying to address an issue that happened 3 months ago is much harder than addressing it at the time. Likewise, not managing an issue and having it repeat itself is bad for productivity and engagement. 

How do I hold the conversation? 

Prepare & Practice

Make sure you have you have a clear understanding of the issues you are addressing and consider in advance the desired outcomes of the conversation, e.g. an improvement in performance. However, do not plan a verbatim script as it is unlikely that the conversation will go exactly to plan. 

Likewise, consider the location, a difficult conversation should always be conducted in private, to ensure free dialogue and to ensure you do not breach your duty of confidentiality.

Be Professional

Ensure you set a professional tone from the start. This will keep the conversation on track. Do not let your own awkwardness belittle the issue as this will result in the employee not taking it seriously. Avoid phrases such as "this won't take long" or "it's really not a big deal".

Get to the point

A difficult conversation is even more difficult if you’re dancing around the subject. So get to the point and don’t blur the lines with unnecessary compliments or ‘feedback sandwiches’

It’s A Two Way Street

You may need to let the employee ‘vent’ at the start, but once they’ve calmed down, involve them in the discussion. Actively listen to them and value their input in agreeing solutions. By asking their opinion, they’ll be more engaged and receptive to the conversation.

Be Open-Minded 

Conclude the conversation with positives and look to the future. Treat the conversation as a conclusion (where possible), don’t hold a grudge and be sure to follow up on any actions you may have agreed.

What should I say?

Ensure you are empathetic and put the conversation into context, linking it to business reasons where possible. This will help mitigate the risk of bullying/harassment/discrimination claims. Before holding a difficult conversation, run it past your BPIF HR Advisor to gain an impartial perspective of any associated risks.

Here are some examples to help you get started:

  • "There is a problem I would like to discuss with you. It's a delicate matter, and I would like to see if we can agree a resolution to it."
  • "I want to talk to you about something that's important, something that's really concerning me,"
  • "I have noticed that your output has declined. What can we do to improve this?”
  • “I need to discuss something about your person with you, please try not to be offended that is not my intention”
  • "Tell me more about that”, “What were the reasons for that?", “Let’s explore that in more depth”

Off The Record 

Remember that conversations are rarely ‘off the record’. Informal verbal conversations with employees can result in formal grievances being raised if not handled correctly. 

You can only have a ‘protected conversation’ pursuant to s.111 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 if dismissal or termination of employment is a realistic outcome if the employee chooses not to accept an exit termination offer under a settlement agreement. Protected conversations will not be protected if they are used to address any work place concern. 

Likewise, a ‘without prejudice’ conversation should be used to genuinely seek a settlement or resolution to an existing dispute. Therefore these should not be used to address matters of concern, if formal disciplinary proceedings have not commenced or if they employee has not formally invoked the grievance process.

Information & Support 

It is really important that you and your managers are confident in holding potentially awkward conversations. 

As such we have arranged training with Jon Dews to occur on the 7 November 2019 at our London Office. The event covers ‘The Difficult Conversation & How It Can Help Your Bottom Line’. Jon has 35+ years in Employment & Training, HR, Industrial Relations, Enterprise and Business Development, most recently with ACAS. 

Spaces on the course are limited and filling up fast! To book your place, please click here

For further guidance on holding difficult conversations or to discuss a specific case, please contact your regional HR Adviser


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