Tips For Handling Difficult Conversations In The Workplace

There’s a reason this article is about “tips” and not “tricks” for handling difficult conversations in the workplace. It’s because there is no way to avoid important human resources conversations: poor hygiene, denial of a raise or promotion, firing…

Take, for example, the recent layoffs at law firm Arent Fox. The Above the Law Blog reports that the law firm, faced with financial difficulties, has recently fired members of their staff. The law firm issued a statement, saying:

“Effective this week, the firm reduced the number of support staff by approximately 20 people in various offices and departments. Like many firms across the country, we are making hard choices to ensure that our resources are aligned with demand. This was a difficult decision that was made even harder because we are losing good people who have helped make Arent Fox an excellent law firm. Those affected are being provided with severance pay and health benefits. We wish them the best.”

Certainly, firing employees is difficult. But, so is explaining these firing to your clients and other colleagues. Arent Fox did an excellent job discussing this sensitive issue.

Why? They kept it short, honest, timely, contextual, and classy.

In general, the rules—if there are any—for handling difficult conversations are simple.

Be honest.

Being honest involves leaving emotion at the door. Honesty doesn’t mean telling an employee how you really feel: they’re incompetent, lazy, and toxic team member! Honesty involves concrete examples of poor performance, for example, or poor hygiene, if that’s the case.

Don’t hide behind excuses. If you’re firing a person for poor performace, bring up documented instances where that was the case.

In the case of Arent Fox, they admitted that individuals who were laid off had contributed greatly to the firm. Like any company in financial straights, however, there are tough decisions to be made. The statement issued by the firm is thus honest and understandable, although unfortunate.

Be timely.

As a corollary, honesty requires documentation and timely reports.

If you plan on using a complaint by a coworker against one of your subordinates, you need to bring it to their attention immediately. Give the subordinate in question time to defend or correct their behavior.

If you come to them even a week or two later, it’s likely they will simply deny the claim. And, it’ll be too long for you (or them) to truly remember the offense.

If you suspect, as a partner or senior manager, that there will be arbitrary lay-offs in the future, issue a statement alluding to that fact. Nothing is worse than being caught off guard by the financial woes of your employer.

Allow your employees to arrange their affairs in enough time. That way, like at Arendt Fox, employees who were let-go know that they will have severance pay and health benefits, and have hopefully put a job lead or two in order.

Be consistent.

Finally, be consistent in your statements. When faced with difficult conversations, it’s easy to talk in a circle. The important thing is to keep focused on the topic at hand, and to not make contradictory statements.

For example, if you are denying a person’s request for a raise because you don’t have the budget, don’t then promote (with a raise) another colleague. And, if you do, address the situation. Perhaps there’s only room in the budget for one raise, and the other person is more senior or more skilled.

Inconsistency can be interpreted as dishonesty, which—as mentioned earlier—is the easiest way to lose the respect of a subordinate and lose you handle on this difficult conversation.

In the end, there are also emotional and legal ramifications to holding difficult conversations in the workplace.

Read C4CM’s Guide on Handling Difficult Conversations: Communication Strategies for the Workplace to learn more. The 108-page guide provides practical and realistic solutions for tackling the hardest elements of workplace interactions, including:

  • Job Performance
  • Disciplinary Action
  • Termination of Employment
  • Employee Complaints about the Workplace
  • Disabilities (Related to Job Accommodations)
  • Personal Presentation/Hygiene

-WB

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