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20 October 2020

How to communicate with staff about sensitive issues

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Top view of two people having coffee

It’s no secret that working in management can be hard, often involving a lot of responsibilities, including the health and wellbeing of staff members.

As part of this role, there will, unfortunately, come a point in time for most managers when a difficult conversation will need to be had with an employee – whether it be about their performance or any issues they’re currently having. 

While the prospect of this may seem daunting, there are a number of effective ways to make the whole process easier for both yourself and the employee in question. 

Join us as we run through a few of these below, helping you better communicate with staff about sensitive issues.

Show empathy

Sometimes it can seem easy to remain distant and aloof when having difficult conversations. But, by removing emotions from the equation, your meeting could end up being destined to fail. 

Studies have found that empathy is crucial to business success, after all, with results showing that the more empathy a manager shows, the more approachable they come across, and the more engaged, loyal, innovative and open to sharing that employee will be. 

There are a few ways to apply this strategy when discussing delicate subjects with employees. Firstly, by having the conversation in a private and relaxed environment, this helps alleviate any potential embarrassment experienced by the member of staff. What’s more, it will also prevent other colleagues from eavesdropping or overhearing any potentially sensitive chats.

Another way to use empathy when talking with employees is to put yourself in their shoes. Think about why your staff members are in this position, ask yourself what has led to this meeting and consider how you can reach a mutually beneficial conclusion.

If, for example, one of your employees comes to you requesting an advance on their wages, you should first consider why they need the advance before making a decision. 

In this instance, your colleague could be dealing with credit problems and trying to avoid getting into debt. By taking the time to consider your employee’s perspective, this will help you develop a rapport and reach a positive resolution more quickly.

Be prepared

While empathy is crucial in a sensitive discussion, it’s equally important to prepare yourself on a practical, professional level. So, how can you do this? 

Some academics define professionalism as a set of workplace practices, claiming that enforcing boundaries in business settings is necessary. Therefore, it could help your meeting to think about what kind of practices are required of you and consider the boundaries you need to place between yourself and your employee.

In addition to this, it’s generally a good idea to brush up on any relevant associated policies. Those in management are obliged by law to ensure that all staff members work in a safe and healthy environment, and any evidence of neglect could see you prosecuted. Make sure, therefore, that you are aware of what you legally are/aren’t allowed to discuss. 

It may also be a good idea to refresh your knowledge of company procedure surrounding the most common human resources issues, as you could need to use them if the meeting starts to derail. If required, don’t be afraid to ask for additional training in the areas you feel you need improvement – you should always feel confident and well-prepared when it comes to having an awkward conversation.

Stay in control 

It’s easy for things to get heated when talking about sensitive subjects, but you must keep your own feelings in check. 

Staying in control of the meeting is central to productively steering the conversation and reaching a resolution to any issues. While this doesn’t mean writing a script and sticking to it, it does mean that you should try to have an idea of what you want to determine and avoid going off on tangents during your chat. 

Additionally, before the meeting starts, try to identify your own emotional triggers and flaws, since having this level of self-awareness will enable you to stay calm and collected, even if the employee in question becomes agitated or hostile. 

What’s more, studies have shown that introducing introspection into your management training can improve communication with staff, which can really help when trying to manage delicate situations. 

Being calm, direct and setting the tone for how the meeting is going to run from the start is a simple way to manage your employee’s expectations and keep any friction to a minimum.

Final thoughts...

Although having difficult conversations at work is never fun for any of the parties involved, it is necessary for maintaining a pleasant work environment for all. 

However, by brushing up on regulations, effectively directing the meeting and empathetically viewing things from the employee’s perspective, this can help make the process of communicating about sensitive issues as straightforward and constructive as possible.

Gemma Hart

Gemma Hart

Gemma Hart is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Since graduating in 2013, Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards growing her personal brand and connecting with leading experts.

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