The three toughest work conversations

by Janie Smith24 Jul 2014
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. Recognise 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?


  • by David 24/07/2014 1:59:30 PM

    We've had complaints about your body odour...

  • by Sarah 25/07/2014 9:24:08 AM

    I agree David - Body odour conversations are up there as one of the hardest as it's impossible for the person to not take it personally.

  • by Delia 25/07/2014 1:10:20 PM

    Yes, agree with both David and Sarah. This is surely the most delicate situation of all. When an HR manager spoke in such circumstances, the employee was very highly offended; and accused the manager of being "mad" and even racist.

    The manager had posed the issue as a question, asking if the woman used deodorant.

    And we once had an older person, who would pass wind perpetually as he walked along; I am sure he wasn't aware that he did so, or just didn't care.

    In that situation, everyone just put up with it - because what would that conversation have been? (Totally embarrassing?)

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