Six golden rules for making difficult conversations easier

This article was published on the Australian Financial Review website on June 10th, 2015.  It was written as part of my internship at the Australian Financial Review.

Image © Markus Spiske via Creative Commons

Image © Markus Spiske via Creative Commons

In the 2009 film, Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character is hired by companies to tell employees that their jobs have been terminated.

Instead of having a proper conversation, sacked staff get handed a packet of self-help information to ease them through the uneasy road on unemployment ahead. The film questions whether employers have become cold-hearted in their approach to cut backs, with many bosses avoiding difficult conversations with employees all together.

Managers often dread difficult conversations with staff, particularly those around poor performance. But Australian Human Resources Institute president, Peter Wilson, says they can reduce the emotional fall-out for everyone by following these six simple rules:

1. Have a clear set of performance and conduct objectives

Before you even approach an employee for a discussion, ensure you know exactly what discrepancies you want to bring up. “Performance discussions sometimes get off the rails when they’re seen as an ambush. The employee might say, ‘I didn’t know this was expected of me, or this is the first time this has been said.’ You can avoid that by having a clearly stated set of objectives beforehand,” says Wilson

2. Get information about how peers see the employee’s performance

This is less about seeing employees in competition with one another and more a way for you to gain facts to back up your claims. For instance, if a supervisor agrees that an employee needs their performance checked, they can provide hard evidence to back up claims. This enables the employee to understand what expectations are needed from them, Wilson says.

3. Have an independent person there

Having an individual in the room who has no prejudice towards the situation allows the employee to not feel ambushed or attacked during the conversation. Alternatively, if you have another manager or supervisor in the room, the employee will become more defensive if they feel two people are attacking their performance.

4. Watch your language and body language

Appearing calm in your language and body language allows the employee to feel safe and the conversation can be handled harmoniously. “The Fair Work Commission has put a high priority on procedural fairness. They also take a dim view of employers that display anger, irritation or intimidation to employees so you’ve got to work hard to take the negative body language and language out of the discussion. If you don’t do that you can face unfair dismissal claims,” says Wilson.

5. Use timeouts to calm emotions

Wilson says  “timeouts are critical” during difficult performance reviews. The first step is to recognise that a person is upset, then specifically ask them, ‘Would you like to take a break and we can resume this later when you’ve had a chance to reflect?’ This allows the employee to understand what is expected from them and register the information they have just been given.

6. Always stick to the facts

Wilson asserts that facts will “establish a clear deficiency in the employee’s performance that you can back up”. Going off topic to deliberately put an employee down is not going to help the situation.

If an employee chooses to take offence to what you’re saying, you can only stick to your facts and attempt to calm the situation, perhaps with a break. However, it is important to always allow an employee to defend themselves. “People will choose to take objection when they’re being criticised no matter who they are and there’s no way of avoiding that. The thing you have to be careful of is not to get sucked in and become emotional yourself,” says Wilson.


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