Managing Difficult Conversations In 2021

Issue 69

Paul McGowan, Principal Solicitor at specialist employment law firm Collingwood Legal considers how managers should look to approach difficult conversations with employees during the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented a number of challenges to organisations looking to manage their staff. Remote working has meant that managers are having to manage their line reports via Zoom and Microsoft teams. Whilst this might be fine for everyday, informal catch-up meetings it also means managers are having to have difficult conversations with their employees/line reports over these virtual platforms. This can range from conversations about performance, to frictions within their teams that might lead to potential workplace disputes. These types of conversation are ideally best had in person, however this has been limited by the pandemic. New starters within an organisation are meeting their team remotely and existing employees are having to meet new team members virtually, without having previously met them in person. This can potentially make difficult conversations even harder for managers to have with their employees. What factors should managers consider when faced with a workplace issue? When confronting a difficult situation at work, managers should look to establish the facts. They should reflect on what they already know about the person involved, including any relevant issues that they previously faced. For example, if there is a performance related issue, has the employee had any issues with their performance in the past? If not, is there something that may be out of character for the employee, suggesting there may be something going on with them? Managers should assess the situation and bear in mind wider external factors before jumping to conclusions. If an issue can be resolved informally first, then this is often the best way to approach matters without a need to escalate things further. If a meeting with an employee is necessary to better understand the situation, it could be better to try and catch an employee at the end of another meeting, or otherwise schedule one to discuss the issues informally. However, there are some issues which must be addressed at a formal meeting with an employee, so that they can be dealt with and documented appropriately. The manager may wish to get support from HR, but it is important that these types of situations can be dealt with routinely by line managers and involvement from HR should normally be limited to where there are other complex issues involved. Any relevant internal policies should be consulted to ensure compliance and the manager should plan their meeting with the employee. A face to face meeting is preferred when discussing difficult matters, however the impact of the pandemic and increased home working of many employees may call for a virtual meeting. What should managers have in mind during any meeting with an employee? Having a broad outline of what you want to discuss, and a framework for how this will be approached, is always useful for these types of meetings. An introduction to set the tone is important, the issues should be stated, and any evidence should be presented, and the employee should be given an opportunity to respond and explain their account. It is then important with any meeting of this type to agree a way forward and the employee should be asked about their suggestions for ways to resolve matters. It is important that a manager’s involvement does not end there and you should look to arrange a follow-up meeting and monitor any progress, continuing to provide support to the employee if necessary. Documenting this is particularly important in evidencing that any issue has been appropriately dealt with and that the employee remains adequately supported.

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