Difficult conversations in the workplace

Melanie Arnold

Nobody likes delivering difficult messages in the workplace. Why would anyone relish discussing poor performance, personal hygiene or personality clashes? This is why line managers often procrastinate and the conversation never happens or it takes place too late to be meaningful.

As a manager I have learnt that if these issues are not tackled in a timely manner, they can escalate into conflict or the manager and the wider team can become frustrated because the issue persists unresolved. I have also learnt by experience that there is a skill to tackling these conversations effectively. Strategies that helped me include:

  • Treating the individual with respect. Put yourselves in their shoes and imagine how it would feel in their position.
  • Preparation is everything; the more you prepare in advance, the less likely you are to be taken off course.
  • Take action early before the conduct morphs into something more serious.
  • Be clear about the purpose of the discussion and what you want to achieve.
  • It sometimes helps to role play the conversation with a colleague to see how it lands.
  • Don’t apologise for having the discussion. If you start by saying “I am sorry to have to mention this but…” you are already on the back foot. Something is not right and there is no need to apologise for managing it.
  • Take the emotion out of the conversation by keeping it factual. There is a big difference between saying to someone “You are always late in the morning” and “You came in on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 9.45am”.
  • After presenting the facts and why this is unacceptable (breach of policy, etc) give adequate space to hear their side and any explanation. You would be surprised how often there is a good reason for the conduct, which can be managed once you know.
  • Highlight the value of a change of behaviour so that the conversation concludes on an optimistic note.
  • Agree a plan going forward, and follow up afterwards in writing.
  • Always make an accurate record of the conversation.
  • Meet again after an appropriate interval to see how things are progressing.

I will hold my hands up and say that I cringe when I think back to some of the difficult conversations I had in the past; I didn’t always get it right. With the benefit of hindsight, I can honestly say that I have put our people and our business at the heart of what I do, and my experience has shown me that these conversations will never be easy but the outcomes are usually better if a methodical approach is taken.

Mel Arnold is a Senior Legal PA in the employment team.

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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