The five most difficult workplace conversations – People Management

By Jo Faragher

From redundancy to a reluctant CEO, People Management guides you through the chats every HR professional dreads

1 Confronting an office bully

It’s all about the language – and keeping your cool

An accusation of bullying in the workplace can strike fear into the most confident of HR professionals and line managers. So much so, according to Professor Charlotte Rayner of the University of Portsmouth, that many try to reframe the situation as a personality clash or “performance management gone wrong” to avoid dealing with it.

“There’s a real danger of things blowing up when you confront a bully. If you come in and accuse them of something, they could take umbrage against you personally,” she says. The sooner you can deal with the bullying situation (ideally before the staff member affected lodges a formal grievance), the less difficult the conversation will be.

“Getting in there before a formal grievance is lodged means you can avoid legalistic language such as ‘complaint’ or ‘evidence’ that will put managers automatically on the defensive,” adds Rayner. “You can have a conversation and say at the end, ‘I’m working with you to avoid a complaint here.’ They will realise you’re serious, but that you’re on their side.” The best approach is to depersonalise things, says David Liddle, CEO of mediation company The TCM Group.

“As they say in football, attack the ball and not the player. Talk from the ‘I’ rather than pointing the finger. If you say ‘you always do this’, it could be perceived as an attack.” Some organisations use information from staff surveys as a way into these awkward discussions, so they can say ‘We’re talking to everyone about this; there seems to be an issue.’”

The language you use has the potential to either inflame or defuse matters. Using the word “bully” itself could anger the person you’re confronting, so take a step back. Does the complainant feel they’re being made to take on too much work, for example?

“The word ‘bully’ is bandied around a lot in the workplace,” says Alex Efthymiades, director of dispute resolution company Consensio. “Helping the person making the complaint to understand what they mean and deconstructing their language will help.”

2  Asking for investment in an HR project 

How to squeeze more from a hard-pressed budget

During the economic downturn, aircraft components manufacturer Alcoa Howmet was forced to halve its headcount over a four-year period. Employee engagement was at an all-time low, yet HR manager Cindy Penney had to present a business case that investing in improving it would pay off, at a time when wages had been frozen.

“It was a burning platform for us. I needed to show we could add value through revenue, productivity and sales, and to do this I needed to increase engagement,” says Penney, whose efforts won her company the overall prize at the 2013 CIPD People Management Awards.

Penney ran workshops with line managers to show how levels of disengagement affected productivity, quantifying how much they could save if, for example, absence was reduced. She reallocated training budgets and pulled out of anything that wasn’t focused on engagement. “There’s plenty of research available showing how engagement is important. What I did was bring it home through local data and setting local targets.”

Nick Kemsley, co-director of the Centre for HR Excellence at Henley Business School, believes there are three key elements to this type of conversation: “Performance and efficiency in the short term, growth and strategic advantage in the long term, and insight into both of these through metrics and data… HR should be able to articulate how its strategy is the best solution to a risk or opportunity coming out of the business plan.”

Former public sector HR director Alan Warner, who now works as a consultant, says any conversation about budgets should focus on evidence. “Take the emotion out of it if you can,” he says. “What options do we have, and what will be the consequences if we take a certain route? Don’t focus on how much you need in the next six months, but on how that investment might change the landscape over two years.”

3 Raising the question of retirement 

Tip-toeing to a solution that works for both parties

The phasing out of the default retirement age has made it easier to keep valuable older staff in their roles and use their skills to benefit the organisation.But workplaces still need to plan, so having some idea of employees’ long-term ambitions (whatever their age) can be helpful.

According to Acas, it may be beneficial to have this discussion as part of the formal appraisal process. “A useful exercise is to ask open questions regarding an employee’s aims and plans for the short, medium and long term.” Flexible working, including a part-time role, could be considered, or the employee may want to harness their experience in a slightly different position.

At family-run Pimlico Plumbers, a number of key workers are well into their 70s and have no plans to slow down. Dominic Ceraldi, HR manager, maintains an open dialogue to check they’re happy with their workloads or shift patterns. “I meet with them a couple of times a year, just to see how they are and what their plans are. How do they feel? Do they want to work?” he says.

“If people are coming up to [what was] retirement age, we ask them whether they’re OK to continue. Mentally they usually feel fine. Some want to slow down but not stop altogether. We try to work out what is best for both parties by talking to them, rather than telling them what to do.”

If you’re having regular discussions about performance, says Denise Keating, chief executive of the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, it should be easier to broach any issues around the person’s ability or desire to keep working. “Retirement is something that should be driven by the individual. By talking to employees and asking them where they see themselves in five years’ time, it allows you to incorporate that person into your workforce planning.”

4  Explaining the value of HR to your CEO 

Because it’s not just tea and sympathy…

Whether it’s delivering your elevator pitch to a new boss or a long-fought struggle to have your department’s contribution recognised, explaining the value of HR can prove challenging, especially if you’ve been put on the spot.

“There are a number of questions that HR tends to avoid like the plague,” says Guy Ellis, director of HR consultancy Courageous Workplaces. “How do we value HR? How can I tell you’re doing a good job? The issue is that, as a relatively new function compared with the likes of marketing, there are fewer standard measures of what good looks like.”

In past roles, Leigh Lafever-Ayer, HR director for UK and Ireland at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, has been “sold to” from the other side of the fence, so she knows how tempting it is for HR to speak its own language. “It makes perfect sense to you why you should run that leadership project, but until you relate it back to business performance, it’s really difficult,” she says.

“Data is important. Cross-reference what you have. We might relate customer service data from individual branches to retention levels, and customer complaints.”

Putting what you do into context in this way will lend you credibility and show the value of HR to the wider business. “HR needs to be able to articulate its role in the context of short- and long-term business outcomes, and put itself in the CEO’s shoes,” adds Kemsley of Henley Business School.

It’s not about over-simplifying HR’s contribution but clarifying it, argues Ellis. “A good response might be: ‘I help managers get the best out of their staff. I help them develop and manage people better, lead them better and understand what gets them to work in the morning.’”

5  Telling someone they’ve been made redundant

Forget sticking to your script – integrity is key

Just because you’re having a difficult conversation about something like redundancy doesn’t stop you being human. I’ve never enjoyed dealing with these situations,” says consultant Alan Warner, describing the gut-wrenching feeling of having to break bad news.

From a legal perspective, employers can now hold “protected conversations” around redundancy terms without the content being used in a future unfair dismissal claim, so it’s possible to be frank about issues such as compromise agreements (providing you’re not acting in a discriminatory way, in which case it is admissable).

Striking the right balance between delivering the necessary information and being empathetic will help the conversation to go more smoothly, says Liddle: “Acknowledge that it will be a difficult message to deliver. You can still do it with integrity and empathy without sugar-coating it.” Having a workable plan in place for that individual shows you’re on their side. “Any conversation where you’re going to be taking someone’s life down a different path is difficult,” says Lafever-Ayer. “We’ve offered things like CV-writing workshops or explored our external HR networks to provide as much support as possible.”
Although you might prefer to script your conversation, Mandy Jackson, director of training company London Role Play, says this isn’t advisable. “If you write a script, you’ll panic if the conversation goes off-script. Focus on objectives – on what you’re trying to say. If nerves take over, simply remind yourself of those objectives.”

Acknowledging there may be tears or anger will help you to feel more prepared; from a practical perspective, having tissues or a glass of water to hand mean you won’t have to run out mid-meeting. And don’t underestimate how shocked the employee might feel. “It’s a bit like ‘white-coat syndrome’ when someone visits the doctor and they receive bad news. It’s important to keep the dialogue going, perhaps with a follow-up meeting,” adds Liddle.

“How can I put this? You smell”
Handling the most common interpersonal office problems
Excessive body odour
Most people causing a stink would rather be told the truth, so acknowledge you’ve deliberated whether to broach the subject and ask permission for a frank conversation.  Mention you’ve noticed your colleague suffers a perspiration problem, and you want to help them avoid embarrassment. Don’t, as one manager did, make a record of the conversation and circulate it in a memo.

Inappropriate attire
Everyone has a different interpretation of “too much flesh”. Your dress code should offer general guidance but, when dealing with individuals, stick to specifics: dress sandals might be fine in summer, for example, but flip-flops too much.

Swearing in the office
Remind staff that colleagues would be well within their rights to make a complaint if cursing made them feel uncomfortable. And encourage managers to role model good behaviour and address inappropriate profanity: “Do you think you could find a more creative way of expressing yourself?” is a light-hearted way of calling out the behaviour.

Now watch the video
How might our difficult conversations play out in reality? Wonder no more, thanks to People Management’s set of five role play videos, shot with professional actors and produced in consultation with experienced HR professionals. To access them, download the People Management app – free to CIPD members – from iTunes, Google Play or Amazon.


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