Finding the right words in awkward situations

5-step approach for tackling prickly conversations with employees
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2011

As a leadership and communications expert, Merge Gupta-Sunderji thought she had heard it all. But when her Calgary-based firm asked clients about the most difficult conversations they’ve had with employees (see sidebar on page 24), she was admittedly surprised.

Take, for example, the female manager who had to talk to a male employee about continually grabbing himself in his private area during meetings. The manager started by showing him Michael Jackson videos and footage of baseball players and asking, “What do you have in common with these guys?”

He didn’t know so, eventually, the manager had to be more direct. It turns out he was a former baseball player and completely unaware of either his offensive habit or its impact on co-workers.

While conversations about sensitive issues — such as social habits, body odour, poor performance, gossip or workplace attire — are dreadful, they must happen, says Gupta-Sunderji.

“You have to make the first move,” she said. “It’s really uncomfortable but it won’t go away. You’re the manager and this is what you’re paid to do.”

Advance preparation

It helps to do some homework in advance. Before approaching an employee, be clear about the reason for having the conversation in the first place, says Mitch Fairrais, president of On the Mark, a Toronto consulting firm that offers workshops on navigating difficult talks.

“You need clarity,” he says. “Get a clear sense from HR or your organization about what the hope is from you, and reflect back your intentions so everyone is clear.”

Many conversations become stuck, says Fairrais, because managers forget the bigger picture: What impact is this poor performance or behaviour having on the company?

Ginger Brunner, president of Dynamic HR in Shawnigan Lake, B.C., once had to discuss personal attire, or lack thereof, with an employee. The woman was fit and wanted to show it off.

“I just had to keep bringing it back to our policies,” says Brunner.

Having a productive talk starts by meeting one-on-one, says Fairrais.

“The only time a conversation like this can be good is if you’re clear about the other party’s view or frame of reference,” he says. “You can’t do that in a group.”

Body language and seating also needs to be just right. It’s best to sit — never stand — only a few feet apart with nothing between the two of you, says Fairrais. It’s also important to lean in and be present — no checking email, taking a “quick” call or allowing others to butt into the conversation.

“You have to eliminate distractions,” he says. “Otherwise, you will not be ‘there.’”

It’s also helpful to have a game plan, says Gupta-Sunderji. Employers should take a five-step approach, she says. This not only gives managers confidence, it also gives them a road map if the discussion goes off track. It can be helpful if you have the steps written down and mentally check them off as you go along.

First on the list, of course, is to have the conversation. Start by acknowledging any discomfort. A line such as, “I have something to discuss with you that I’ve really struggled with but it’s something I’d want to know about if it were me,” works well, says Gupta-Sunderji.

Then, you need to be direct.

“Be respectful, be empathetic, but get to the point,” she says. “‘There’s a strong body odour coming from you’ or ‘I know you have a sick child but your work is falling behind.’”

The third step is to anticipate and be prepared for emotion, whether it’s anger, defensiveness or tears.

“It’s natural for people to be upset in these situations. Don’t take it personally,” says Gupta-Sunderji.

This leads to step four: Express your desire to resolve the issue rather than see it escalate.

“Try saying, ‘I see how this has upset you. My goal is to see how we can turn this around so you come in on time so you don’t face disciplinary action,’” she says.

How the conversation is framed sets the tone, says Fairrais, who tells clients to shift the talk from being a monologue to a dialogue.

“You could say, ‘I have a challenge. It involves my perception of the practices you use in meetings. Here’s what those perceptions are. What are your perceptions?’” he says. “It gets their guard down. When you make it about them alone, their guard goes up.”

If there are tears or anger, it can help to take a break and resume the conversation later. It’s a good idea to think through all potential reactions in advance of the meeting and to practise a response to them, says Fairrais. At the same time, consider what it would be like in the other person’s situation.

“You have to be as sincere as possible,” he says. “Bring as much clarity and transparency as you can. You don’t want them to think you’re trying to soft sell something.”

Brunner brings a box of tissues and shows she cares.

“Don’t forget you’re dealing with a person,” she says. “Sometimes we get caught up in all of the proper steps and we forget that there’s a human on the other side of the table.”

At the same time, to be effective, you have to stick to the facts and not get caught up in the emotion. These types of meetings should never go longer than 20 minutes, says Fairrais.

Wrapping it up

It’s important to leave the meeting with a plan. That means laying out the problem, the desired change or outcome and the potential consequences as early as possible in the meeting, he says. This leaves time to work on a solution together.

“You really want to focus on the future, not what went wrong,” he says. “Find a way to enlist their views. Unless they feel you truly understood them, and they are part of the solution, they will be back again.”

As difficult as these discussions can be, if they’re not dealt with, the consequences can be far worse, says Brunner.

“The rest of the employees see these things happening,” she says. “If they’re not being addressed, that sends a really loud message.”

Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer.

Tough talk

10 difficult conversations

• The dreaded “body odour” or personal hygiene discussion.

• You can’t make out or have sex in the office (even more awkward if they’re doing it during working hours).

• I have to discipline you/let you go/fire you.

• Please stop _____________ (insert “poor social habit” here). Example of poor social habits: picking your nose, eating with your mouth open, grabbing your crotch, making inappropriate hand gestures.

• Inappropriate workplace attire — too short, too low-cut, too revealing, too casual, the list goes on.

• Stop gossiping about your co-workers or managers.

• Repeated tardiness getting to work or returning from breaks.

• Inappropriate use of the Internet at work — ranging from incessant checking of a personal email account to accessing restricted sites to downloading pornographic material.

• Excessive number or length of personal phone calls at work.

• Using personal communication devices (such as iPhones and Blackberries) during a meeting.

Source: A survey of 8,000 newsletter subscribers by Merge Gupta-Sunderji of the Calgary consulting firm mergespeaks

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