The three toughest work conversations

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If you’ve been in the HR profession for a while, chances are you’ve had to tackle some tough topics of conversation.
No matter how many times you’ve done it, breaking the news of a dismissal or redundancy is never easy.
Nor is having to tell someone to change their attitude or that their work just isn’t good enough
Behavioural scientist and strategist Darren Hill, co-founder of Pragmatic Thinking, shares his tips for handling these potentially delicate or awkward situations:
  1. “You no longer have a job.” The dismissal or restructure conversation
  • “Don’t even attempt to remove emotion from the conversation,” said Hill. “There will be emotion and you will have to deal with it. Recognize that tears and sadness are okay but tread carefully with sympathy vs empathy. Statements such as, ‘It looks like you are really upset’ are helpful, while ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you’ sends the message, I’m glad it’s you and not me.’”
  • “Always remember to keep the tone and volume of your voice underneath the other person’s. If it does get heated voices can be raised. Never be tempted to match the escalation. People do not usually shout for very long if the other party doesn’t reciprocate, as it makes them feel uncomfortable.”
  • “The social rule of direct eye contact is dangerous. Although we’re taught to look someone in the eye, this is the most personal communication medium and the person on the receiving end often has no choice but to take the message personally. Share an independent visual medium such as some written notes to help you talk about ‘it’ (the restructure or termination) instead of ‘you’.”
  1. “I don’t like your attitude.” The awkward personality conversation
  • “Never use phrases like, ‘I don’t want you to take this the wrong way’,” Hill said. “This is a classic priming statement and now the person is on the lookout for a way to ‘take it the wrong way’. Always prime the person towards the successful outcome, such as ‘I need us to both be on the same page’.”
  • “Avoid naming unhelpful traits. ‘I want to talk about you being arrogant’. Ouch. I can guarantee this conversation will head south, fast. Take the unhelpful trait and find a strength – cynical becomes realistic and interfering becomes inquisitive. This paints a different picture yet remains on topic. For instance, when addressing arrogance – ‘One of your strengths is that you’re a confident guy, but there are times when your confidence can be a little overwhelming or misplaced. Let me give you an example...’”
  1. “Your work is just not good enough.” The underperformance conversation
  • “One of the biggest mistakes people make is to focus on traits instead of behaviours. Firstly, confusion occurs because the definition of a certain trait varies from person to person. I may consider dedication as taking on extra tasks while you might interpret this as more thoroughness in your projects.
“Secondly, traits are often enduring patterns. Thinking you can change them in a half-hour conversation is ambitious. Don’t tell someone they lack initiativehighlight that they rarely put their hand up to lead projects and you will have a much higher chance of success.”
What’s the toughest workplace conversation you’ve ever had?
  • Janine on 2014-07-23 11:48:31 AM

    I'm not sure why HR is having the conversations noted in the article (except for perhaps the termination conversation in the case of large scale terminations). The persons supervisor/manager should be having the conversation with the employee with HR providing guidance and support. It's not HR's job to coach or discipline employees, that's what bosses get paid for. HR gets paid to make sure that they do it appropriately, within the bounds of the law and policy and to document.

  • Cathy on 2014-07-23 12:04:01 PM

    HR professionals are trained and prepared for the above conversations, however, it's the very personal ones, that are the most awkward. How about having to tell an employee "you smell." Or " your dress is not up to standards."

  • Joan on 2014-07-23 1:28:37 PM

    Agee with Janine, Supervisors/managers should have most of these conversation and HR should may be support /train them but not take it out of their hands. It seems that HR also does not want to grow up and deal strategically with issues. it really depends on the strength of the HR manager to get out of this cycle. So just HR experience is not enough and business experience is needed too!

  • Sue on 2014-07-23 3:22:28 PM

    ‘It looks like you are really upset’ would be interpreted by many as a very condescending statement. Most people hate the 'it looks like you' statements.

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