Difficult conversations with employees

By: Georgina Harris

Date: 18 November 2010

ChestnutsWe wince at the thought, but if you’re a manager you have to tackle tricky staff problems head on. This, inevitably, means the dreaded “little chat”. Simple conflict-management techniques really help - Georgina Harris explains how to reduce the pain but get results

Whether it’s a worker who is endlessly late, an employee with a flamboyant range of minor ailments or the classic idler, you’ll know that some people’s contribution to your team seems to add up to an empty chair, tight-lipped resentment from the others and low-level morale drain. If the problem’s recent, and not serious enough to warrant a disciplinary, you might be tempted to avoid spending precious managerial time sorting it out. But slackers and whingers tend not to fix themselves, and if their behaviour gets worse, you don't have an HR problem, you have a profit problem.

Or legal trouble. In 2007–08, the number of individual employment tribunal claims rose to over 190,000. Acas points out that people are also now more aware of their rights at work, which means if employers do not manage conflict effectively, they could face a court case or, more likely, an expensive settlement. So it’s worth nipping “issues” in the bud.

Start by taking control of what you can: set a time, place and date for a discussion with the employee. Most importantly, set a goal. What result do you need out of this meeting? Keep sight of your aim, before, during and after the meeting.

Plan ahead for the chat by gathering the evidence you need. Jot down examples of the problem behaviour and why it’s causing difficulties. Keeping your aim in sight, make a list of how you and the employee work together to fix the problem.

Once you’re in the meeting, explain to the employee that you are both there to restore harmony. Then ask the employee to put their side of the story. Don’t interrupt.

As they’re talking, practice active listening. Encourage your employee to be open so you can both root out the key issues. Show you understand your employee’s point of view and you are taking in the detail of what they are saying by restating what they said in your own words. That shows your responses are more than lip service, and you should be appreciated for listening.

Don’t assume your staff member can see things from your point of view. Your job might be to check the balance sheets against staff productivity; theirs may not. So, even if it seems (or is) blindingly obvious, make it clear exactly why their behaviour is a problem. Appeal to their self-interest by asking them how they think their behaviour looks to others at work.

If they get emotional, don’t respond in kind or you’ll give your power away. But don’t dismiss the role of feelings entirely; your employee needs to see you respecting and acknowledging how they feel. Getting fiery = bad news; acknowledging feelings = good news.

Avoid getting personal at all costs. While tempting, it won’t help reach your goal any faster and will make you, not your staff member, look like the team’s liability. Focus on the behaviour, not the person.

No matter how exasperating it is, refuse to engage in arguments – keep your mind trained on getting the result you want. If you need more incentive to stay calm, bear in mind it takes two to argue. And whatever comes out of you in anger could end up a bigger problem for you than a slacker team member.

Move on to a range of solutions you can finalise. Use neutral phrases to suggest behaviour changes, such as “Let’s talk about how you might do that”. Don’t say “You can’t keep doing this”, just repeat “You must arrive by 9am”. If the problems are pretty basic – repeated lateness – take them step-by-step through how they will make it in by 9am. Stay non-confrontational; arguing will not get an employee out of bed earlier. Although it’s tiring, keep relentlessly positive – if you’re faced with an endless array of obstacles to improving the performance, work together to solve them. Be patient, but be wary of making concessions you can’t offer everyone.

Once you’ve reached a solution, repeat it clearly so you both understand it. Then arrange a follow-up chat, and leave it at that. Exit the room and breathe – job well done.

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