How to have difficult conversations at work

My open plan office is making it awkward to have an important conversation with my colleague. How can I address the issue without causing a scene?

Go to the profile of Nickie Elenor
Sep 11, 2017
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I work in an open plan office and everyone knows what’s going on with everyone else. The trouble is that I need to have a conversation with one of my team that’s going to be a bit awkward for both of us. I’m not sure how to prepare for it; not just in terms of the impact on the employee (and me) but the wider team. What would you advise?

The magic of email is that we don’t have to make a scene by asking an employee to follow us to a private room in front of their peers. Start the ball rolling by sending a calendar invite to the employee to meet with you. Give a reason for the meeting but keep it brief. Set the meeting at the first available opportunity to minimise the time for speculation and tension between you. If you set the meeting at the end of the day, there is less chance that anyone will notice if the employee leaves their work station a bit earlier.

Great.  What do I do next?

You may feel better about the conversation if you plan for it. Prepare an outline ‘script’ for what you want to say.  Start with the purpose of the meeting and a brief explanation of the issue that you need to raise. If it helps, give yourself prompts to offer the employee opportunities to respond to the points that you intend to raise in order to make it more of a conversation.

I think everyone will notice when we both get up from our desks and go to the meeting room.  How do I avoid the gossip?

You could go to the meeting place 5 minutes early and set yourself up in the room before the employee arrives. Have a think about where you are going to meet. For example, you may not want to hold a difficult conversation in a room with glass walls where everyone can see your reactions.  This wouldn’t be pleasant for you or the employee. 

I am nervous about how I keep the tone of the meeting professional when emotions are likely to run high. 

Having the ‘script’ will help you to keep the meeting on track and it will show the employee that you have taken the time to plan what you wanted to say. There is a natural expectation when someone is working through an agenda to wait for the next item. It can be helpful to take a pen and tick off the sections that you have covered so the employee can see where you are at in the conversation.

What should I do if things become heated or emotional?

Don’t ignore the emotions. Acknowledge that it is a difficult conversation and validate the emotions it is bringing out (yours and the employees). You can suggest a comfort break or an adjournment if necessary. 

If the employee is really upset, you may wish to allow them to go home but think about this option carefully. Sometimes it is easier to resolve issues and misunderstandings whilst the employee is on site rather than risk the employee leaving the building with the wrong end of the stick which may result in sickness absence or a resignation.

How do I wrap up the meeting?

Summarise your discussion, agreed action points and next steps. It’s important to remind the employee about confidentiality and professionalism too. Tell the employee that you will follow up with an email confirming the meeting and if they have any queries, they can arrange a further meeting with you to chat them through.

Once you both return to the working environment, it’s okay to adopt a ‘business as usual’ approach but be mindful of how the employee may feel. Be kind and give them a little time to process the conversation and the outcome.

Go to the profile of Nickie Elenor

Nickie Elenor

I have been an employment law solicitor for 15 years.

I set up Your HR Lawyer as I was fed up with the call centre models and poor service provided by the big HR support providers. So my mission is to provide the creditable alternative. I am passionate about helping employers navigate through the sometimes complex world of Employment law in a commercially savvy and straight talking way.
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