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How to avoid awkward conversations with staff

Written by Robert Ordever on Monday, 05 August 2019. Posted in HR, People

There will always be occasions when managers need to have awkward conversations with staff. Perhaps they aren’t performing as expected or their behaviour isn’t in line with the company’s culture and values.

How to avoid awkward conversations with staff

There will always be occasions when managers need to have awkward conversations with staff. Perhaps they aren’t performing as expected or their behaviour isn’t in line with the company’s culture and values. It may even be a case of broaching a highly sensitive and potentially embarrassing issue, such as body odour or inappropriate work attire. Whatever the awkward conversation may be about, it’s important to approach it carefully, honestly and respectfully, avoiding any ‘crossed wires’ along the way.

Here, Robert Ordever, Managing Director of workplace culture specialist, O.C. Tanner Europe, gives his top tips on how to tackle ‘that’ conversation:


It may seem obvious but too many managers approach an awkward conversation in a bullish manner, seeing it as “something to get out of the way quickly” with little thought on how to best broach the subject. Consider how you would like to be dealt with if the roles were reversed and take into account the particular needs of the individual so that your approach is tailored accordingly. Preparing what you’d like to say and how you’d like to say it will help to avoid any misunderstanding.

Ensure privacy and discretion

Carefully consider the best location for your conversation. It goes without saying that difficult conversations should never be held in open plan offices. Perhaps a meeting room or private ‘chill out’ area would be best or you may even prefer to have the conversation at a local café. It’s also important to exercise discretion before and after the conversation so that what was discussed doesn’t ‘leak out’. Should this happen, any trust and respect they had for you will be instantly eroded.

Make the conversation timely

Don’t ‘put off’ any difficult conversations or wait until the annual review. Conversations, no matter how awkward, must take place in a timely fashion. The longer a difficult conversation is left, the more tricky it will become to broach and there may be knock-on effects such as a deteriorating relationship between the manager and employee. With over half of employees wishing they could have more conversations with their leaders about their development*, don’t postpone that all important chat.

Be honest and transparent

Individuals respect when their leaders are open and can speak to them frankly so be honest in your exchanges. This also means not shifting blame onto another party or pretending to be ‘the mediator’.

Show sensitivity

Being frank and honest does not mean being blunt and insensitive. By their very nature, awkward conversations can lead to heightened emotions and so display sensitivity and understanding throughout. Now isn’t the time for apportioning blame and being defensive.

Be constructive

Ensure any feedback is delivered constructively so that employees are clear what needs to happen moving forward. It’s also helpful to counterbalance any negative comments with ways in which you appreciate the employee so they don’t feel dejected.

Listen carefully and take onboard feedback

Any constructive conversation must involve plenty of active listening. Ensure you leave gaps in the conversation for the employee to respond and make it clear that you value their input. Be open with what you plan to do following the meeting and ensure any actions are followed-through.

Every manager is faced with occasions when they have to have ‘that’ conversation and depending on how they handle it, it can lead to very different outcomes.

The very best managers are those who have ongoing conversations with their staff through the good times and the bad. They book in one-to-ones on a regular basis, working hard to get to know their staff on a personal level, rather than waiting to give feedback at the annual performance review. During these one-on-ones the manager may discuss performance goals, show their appreciation and check-in with their employees mentally and emotionally. When managers take time out to regularly keep in touch with their employees, ‘awkward conversations’ not only take place less frequently, but they also become far easier to manage.

*Findings from O.C. Tanner’s Global Culture Report

About the Author

Robert Ordever

Robert Ordever

Robert Ordever is the Managing Director of workplace culture expert, O.C. Tanner Europe. Robert joined O.C. Tanner in August 2014, as People and Operations Director. From luxury retail at Harrods to Premier League football at Fulham Football Club, Robert's operational and HR background has given him a real passion for creating a workplace culture that truly gets the best out of its teams.

Robert holds Chartered Fellowship of the CIPD and has specialised in the field of Human Resources for over 17 years.

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