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How small business owners can tackle difficult conversations with employees

September 20, 2016

Having to carry out difficult conversations is an inevitable consequence of owning a business and being an employer. When most business owners start employing staff they often haven’t thought of the reality of becoming an employer and having to tackle workplace issues as they arise.

Employers often don’t have the confidence to successfully carry out difficult conversations but avoiding these, and leaving issues to fester, is likely to negatively impact the business and, whilst this may be avoided in a larger business, a lack of productivity, capability or incidents of misconduct can have a serious effect on the business as a whole.

As a small business employer, you can avoid this outcome by being prepared, and facing difficult conversations with confidence in your ability to come to a positive solution. Here’s how;

Prepare in advance for difficult conversations

Most employers will know that having a difficult meeting on a one-on-one basis can leave them floundering under pressure as they feel unable to generate the required outcome.

Setting out in advance what the issue is, what needs to be discussed and what outcome needs to be achieved will create an outline and layout for the conversation to follow. It will also give you added confidence when holding difficult conversations with employees.

You may wish to script questions but this will be ineffective as you won’t be able to adapt to what is being said during the meeting. Instead, some pointers of what direction to take the conversation or a bullet pointed list of issues will be useful. Making some form of advance notes will mean that important issues aren’t forgotten in the pressure of carrying out the talks.

In order to carry out a successful conversation, you should carefully consider the timing of holding these, though this can be a difficult issue to get right.

Initiating a difficult conversation on a Friday afternoon could lead to a build-up of stress for the employee over the weekend which then causes them to be absent the following week, leaving the issue unresolved.

On the other hand, if the conversation concerns a serious act, then leaving the issue for a few days has the potential to undermine the seriousness of the issue which can cause a problem when taking action against it.

Similarly, a serious conversation may need advance notice to be given to the employee, depending on the situation and the circumstances, so you should take in to account whether any advance notice is needed when scheduling the talk.

RELATED: How to handle disciplnary issues in the workplace

During the conversation

In stressful situations, some employers can find that the pressure of saying the right thing or asking the right questions can lead to a lack of focus on what the employee is saying during the conversation.

Once you have outlined your points, for example, what the issue is, you should give the employee adequate time to respond to what you are saying and the opportunity to express their own views on the subject.

It is important to listen to what the employee is saying and take their views in to account. Preconceiving the employee’s attitude or reasons, and then ignoring anything they say in mitigation, will cause difficulty in the relationship between employer and employee. If the individual feels they are not listened to, and their views are not respected the issue could escalate and the employee may raise a grievance.

RELATED: How to prepare for and handle an employee grievance

Difficult conversations can often lead to stalemate as employer and employee both feel they are in the right. Rather than outlining everything that’s going wrong or causing issues, you should try to focus on being positive, honest and looking to arrive at a solution, rather than solely placing blame on the employee.

Doing this can be as simple as changing a negative question, for example “Why didn’t you do that?” to a positive question “Can you tell me what you did?”

Similarly, asking open questions, rather than questions which require a yes or no answer, will open the employee up and lead them to talk, rather than having a closed attitude to the conversation.

Constructive conversations where the employee isn’t on the defensive will be more likely to lead to a solution than not.

Summarising what the employee is saying every so often lets the employee know that you are listening to them and that their point has registered. Use the words that the employee has used. For example, “I appreciate that you felt upset at the time and that you felt you had been insulted when you were spoken to”.

After the conversation

Tackling issues head on with informal meetings or talks can help to resolve issues before they become deep set in the workplace. As an employer, you should take time after the conversation to reflect on what was said and what was agreed, if anything.

If anything was agreed with the employee during the conversation, then this should be set down in writing and passed to the employee as evidence of what was said, this can then later be relied on if the issue arises again.

Where you agreed to introduce, or change anything during the conversation, then you need to do exactly what you said you would do to keep your employee’s confidence.

Regardless on the outcome of the conversation, you should take the opportunity to reflect on the talk and learn from each occasion. Talks won’t always go well for a number of different reasons and you should be able to evaluate your performance and focus on improvements you can make.

Where difficult conversations have produced a successful outcome, you should pinpoint the effective parts of the conversation and take this experience in to your next difficult conversation.

About the author

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Peter Done, Managing Director of Peninsula Business Services – the UK’s leading specialist Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety service. Other employment guides Peter has written for ByteStart include;

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