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Difficult Conversations Every Manager Has To Have

As much as we might try to avoid them, sometimes sensitive issues come up in the workplace that need to be addressed.

difficult conversations

Whether it’s an employee’s personal hygiene, their lackluster job performance, addressing a violation of company policy, a layoff, or even the death of a coworker, managers may one day be called to have one of these difficult conversations with employees.

But talking about these issues isn’t something that most business owners, managers or supervisors are naturally good at.

In G&A Partners’ most recent webinar Ori Murdock, a senior G&A human resources advisor, offered her tips on how managers should handle conversations about these sensitive topics with employees.

Step 1: Determine whether a conversation needs to take place.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but managers shouldn’t schedule a meeting as soon as an issue with one of their employees is brought to their attention.

If, for instance, an employee has had a noticeable body odor just once in two years of employment, it may not be appropriate for the manager to address the one-time issue. On the other hand, if the employee consistently has a body odor problem and it is negatively affecting the employee, their coworkers or your customers, then it would be necessary for the manager to address this pattern of behavior with the employee.

In some cases, however, a one-time occurrence does warrant swift action on the part of management (such as a serious violation of company policy, or the death of a coworker). Managers should also try to verify the infraction or issue for themselves before speaking to the employee about it, instead of relying solely on the word of another employee.

Another thing to consider before scheduling a meeting with an employee is whether the employer/management team has done everything they needed to do to communicate the organization’s standards and expectations of employee behavior to the employee.

A great example of this is the decision to terminate. A termination for performance reasons should never come as a surprise to an employee. The manager should have communicated to the employee that their performance was not meeting company standards well in advance of making the decision to terminate the employee.

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Step 2: Figure out exactly what needs to be said during the meeting.

For some difficult conversations, there are very specific things that need to be communicated to the employee during this meeting.

During a layoff or termination meeting, for example, employees will need to be notified of the following:

  • When he/she can expect final wages.
  • Whether he/she will be paid for accrued and unused PTO.
  • If applicable, information on employee benefits continuation.
  • That he/she will need to return all company property in his/her possession.

It’s for this reason that it’s important to have a representative from HR involved in the meeting.

Step 3: Decide who should speak to the employee.

The next step in the process is to determine who should speak to the employee about the issue. In some cases, its most appropriate for an employee’s immediate supervisor to address the problem directly with the employee, but in other cases it may be appropriate to have a member of the organization’s HR support team in the room as well.

Below are recommendations for who should be in the room for various conversations:

  • Personal hygiene (such as body odor, grooming/appearance or dress code) are very personal, and should be addressed one-on-one between the manager and employee.
  • Performance management and discipline conversations should likewise be limited to just the employee and his or her immediate supervisor.
  • Conversations about separations (resignations, terminations and layoffs) should, however, be conducted with HR support (either in the room or on the line, depending on geographic constraints).
  • Conversations notifying employees of the death of a coworker should also be conducted with HR support due to the potential for emotional reactions.
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Step 4: Determine when and where the conversation should be had.

Let’s start with “where” first, since it’s the easiest part of this equation. Any difficult or sensitive topic should be addressed in private (preferably an office or conference room), never in front of other employees or in a common area.
“When” can be a bit trickier. Conversations about personal hygiene issues should be held at the end of the day so that the employee doesn’t have to spend the rest of their workday feeling self-conscious about the issue. There is conflicting guidance about when to notify an employee that they’ve been terminated (although most experts agree first thing on Monday is not ideal).

Social media makes notifying employees about the death of a colleague particularly tricky, as some employees who are friends with the employee or members of his or her family might hear about it well before management does. Still, employers should wait to make any kind of statement to employees until after they have spoken to the deceased employee’s family and asked what information the family is comfortable with the company sharing.

Step 5: Have the meeting.

This is understandably the hardest part of the process for most managers, because all these issues are uncomfortable to address with anyone, let alone someone who works for you. Above all else, however, it’s important for managers to ensure that employees are treated with respect and dignity throughout the meeting, regardless of the reason for the meeting.

How to start the conversation.

Practice makes perfect. Download G&A Partners’ “Managers Guide to Difficult Workplace Conversations” for scripts you can use to help you get through some of the most uncomfortable workplace conversations you might have with an employee.

Difficult Workplace Conversations

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