How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Engaging in a difficult workplace conversation is one of those tasks that most managers and business owners would prefer to avoid. Yet the reality is that from time to time, workplace behaviour or performance will be below par and will need to be addressed. 

The key to conducting a challenging conversation at work that is both professional and productive lies in thorough preparation - the three W's of when, where, and what.

WHen is the best time to have the conversation?

Timing is everything when preparing to discuss a difficult issue. Ask yourself a deceptively simple question - why am I instigating this particular conversation right now? If the answer is that you are annoyed, aggravated or otherwise emotionally charged by an employee's behaviour or performance, then this can often be a bad time to attempt a challenging conversation. 

Difficult conversations that are planned and delivered in a calm and considered manner have a much greater chance of producing desired outcomes. Conversely, conversations that are started impulsively, out of anger or frustration can often lead to later accusations of abuse and unfairness. This is particularly so where no warnings or offers of support are given. 

Putting difficult conversations off indefinitely is not productive either. This may create the impression that the conduct is tolerated or accepted. So, ask yourself - is now the right time?

where should i hold the difficult conversation? 

Much like timing, you should carefully prepare the venue for these challenging work conversations. One golden rule is - not in front of a worker's colleagues. Entering a work station and immediately delivering difficult words can be seen as disrespectful or even as an abuse of power. 

In some workplaces, it might be best to email the worker and request that they come to your office or a designated neutral space. Depending upon the gravity of the topic of discussion, it might also be suggested that the worker bring along a support person. 

When you are anxious about the need to have a difficult conversation, you might prefer to just go for it on the spot and begin, but take a deep breath and ensure that the venue is appropriate.

what is the topic of the difficult conversation?

This again might seem like a question that has a simple answer. It might seem obvious to you that the problem is bad performance, bad behaviour - or both. Such general labels however can appear to be an attack on the person, with no real way for them to reply in a meaningful way. And broad admonitions to 'shape up or ship out' are not only unproductive performance guidance - they can be seen as real threats to a worker's employment and do not meet the requirements of reasonable management action. 

Try to have a basic agenda prepared and distil the 'what' of the discussion into two or three clear and succinct points. 

For example, the conversation might cover a tangible issue such as the three late starts since last Thursday; the 30% dip in sales since June; the four separate reports of disrespectful behaviour in the workplace. Specificity assists in driving a conversation that is fair, transparent and likely to deliver a sustainable outcome. 

Choose words which are neutral and not emotionally laden. Avoid descriptive words such as appalling, dreadful, bad or shocking. Try to be rational, measured and neutral in your language and approach. If you are able to deliver a clear and rational statement of what the employee has failed to do or what they have done wrong and invited a response, you are well on your way to having an open discussion and finding a resolution. 

And lastly - listen! A conversation, by definition, involves two or more people. Don't be tainted by pre-judgement.

DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS AS PART OF THE PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT PROCESS 

Humans avoid conflict. We are community-based creatures and prefer to have things just tick along nicely. Yet these difficult conversations are important, having the overall goal of improving performance, getting to the bottom of troubling issues and smoothing the rougher edges of behaviour. 

Acting in anger is inadvisable, as are publicly-heard conversations and sweeping accusations. Clear guidelines for such communication should be set out in the organisation's policies and procedures, with training and resources available to assist. 

Should your difficult conversation form part of a performance management process, make sure that you are adhering to your organisations' relevant policies and procedures. This may include drafting a performance improvement plan if informal performance counselling is not effective. 

Without these structures, organisations are left open to complaints of unfairness or a failure to take reasonable management action. 

Expert help in getting it right

The reality is that difficult conversations are inevitable in the workplace, and it is important that they are conducted well. At WISE, we specialise in the management of workplace behaviour. We can investigate matters of misconduct, resolve conflict through mediation and provide consultation services for effective people governance. Call us at any time to discuss your requirements.  

How to Write a Robust Workplace Investigation Report

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 05, 2018

At the conclusion of a workplace investigation, the investigator has the challenging task of pulling together all relevant material into a cohesive report. The style of report that is chosen will be firmly linked to the purpose of the investigation, keeping in mind the requirements of the readers and users of the document. 

Investigators need to consider closely the manner in which findings are made and how best to share findings with key parties in a clear and appropriate manner. The outcome of a workplace investigation and report might well be that mediation and/or other processes are indicated as next steps. The tasks of drafting, writing and communicating a workplace investigation report are all crucial parts of the process.

whAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE REPORT?

Any investigation report must provide a clear and unbiased summary of the process and outcomes of an investigation. This is a document that leaves nothing to guesswork when it comes to describing the background, methodology, parties involved, timeline of events, policies and findings that have arisen across the entire timespan of the investigative process. 

It can be tempting for an organisation to decide during an investigation not to obtain a report, and to keep any outcomes 'informal'. However, if there are adverse outcomes for one or more parties, a transparent report will be the best way to prevent any future claims of unfair process. 

the style of report

No two investigation reports will have exactly the same style, the author, allegations, organisation type and specific circumstances all lend a unique nature to a report. Yet some common themes can be found in all high-quality investigations. 

Firstly, the report should be written in professional plain English. A variety of readers should be able to interpret the report - without recourse to a thesaurus! In-house descriptors and acronyms can be used, but these must first be defined or form part of a comprehensive glossary. Clear contents and a logical progression from index and executive summary through to scope, methodology, evidence, discussion, findings and recommendations will also assist any audience to understand the document. 

making findings

All findings made in an investigation report must be supported by the facts. If the facts are established, the investigator needs to determine what policy and/or law have been breached by the conduct. Once these elements are established, they must be communicated effectively and clearly in the written report. 

As with the report's overall style, findings should be logical. The report cannot simply list evidence then move to findings. Careful and reasoned explanation is needed of both the process of analysis and the deliberations undertaken by the investigator. 

This includes explaining what and why certain weighting was given to particular parts of the evidence, or why an interviewee might have been persuasive or unpersuasive on a particular point. Making clear findings is often harder than it might at first appear. Similarly, clearly reflecting the author's final thoughts in a clear and concise manner, making the report user friendly for all readers, is a challenging yet essential part of making defensible findings. 

Informing Parties

One issue to consider closely is how the outcomes of the investigation, contained in the report, will be communicated to the participants. Given that witnesses have provided evidence in confidence, their privacy needs to be protected. 

Other questions which need to be considered when sharing the outcome of an investigation with parties include:

  • Could safety be in issue by the release of particular data?
  • Is the presence of a support person necessary?
  • Should the report be presented to all parties together at a meeting? 

While a report must be clear and comprehensive in all of the matters that formed part of the process, consideration should be given to the use, delivery and description of information provided during the workplace investigation. 

Moving on from a workplace investigation

A common recommendation is for parties involved in a workplace investigation to participate in mediation in relation to one or more issues. This is often the case where emotions have stalled effective interactions at work, or where a 'he said - she said' situation makes it impossible to make a clear finding on issues of fact.

It is important to establish if all issues warrant mediation, or if only a few can realistically be dealt with in this way. Who should conduct the mediation is an interesting topic in itself - and one for future discussion. Effective mediation can create resolution of the issues and, ideally, improve workplace relationships. Yet if such discussions fall through, it is important that the report itself will withstand any future scrutiny or review.

If you need assistance with conducting an investigation, contact WISE now or enrol in our popular and effective 'Conducting Workplace Investigations' training course.

Common Issues with Workplace Mediations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Occasional conflicts and disputes are a fact of life in all workplaces. One of the best ways to defuse difficult situations, resolve office concerns and keep your staff happy is mediation. But even though this is a potentially very effective device in the employer's toolkit, workplace mediations can go wrong.

Let's take a look at the process of mediation, and some of the issues which might arise. 

What is mediation? 

The mediation process requires all parties involved in a dispute or issue to meet in the presence of a third party (the mediator), to try and come up with mutually acceptable solutions.

The mediator is trained and is required to be neutral. Unlike a judge, they will not make a determination or decision - instead, a mediator will listen to all parties and suggest objective solutions and options. 

what happens during mediation?

During the actual process of mediation, the parties are encouraged to ventilate their respective viewpoints. Each party then has the opportunity to have private discussions with the mediator, after which the mediator will discuss any commonalities and the key differences in each party's attitude, while suggesting potential resolutions.

Outcomes are flexible and are really only limited by the willingness of the involved parties to cooperate. In the employment context, this means that mediations may result in agreement to apologise, or more novel outcomes such as crediting or debiting leave hours, returning property, or providing work references. Mediations are confidential, which also makes them an extremely attractive option. 

key issues with mediation

Mediation can be extremely helpful by providing a positive communication and solution tool in circumstances where there are no easy answers.

However, mediation may not be as successful if one or both of the parties are extremely entrenched in their viewpoint and are unlikely or unwilling to compromise. This is particularly the case because mediation is a voluntary process - so if staff are reluctant to participate, they cannot be forced to engage.

Further, where matters of serious misconduct or illegality are involved, it may be inappropriate to attempt to find novel solutions to workplace issues. In those circumstances, it is generally appropriate to follow the traditional paths of discipline, incentivisation or other resolution methods.

There can also be issues if parties don't comply with any agreed upon outcomes of the mediation process. 

potential for problems after mediation

Any agreement which is reached during the mediation process can be as formal or as informal as the parties and workplace prefer: from a simple verbal agreement all the way through to a Deed of Settlement recording the negotiated terms or contract stipulating future actions.

Should a formal agreement be executed and one of the parties subsequently reneges on the terms of settlement, the aggrieved party can pursue legal action through the court system to force compliance.

If you have an issue in your workplace regarding employee conflict, it may be useful to discuss these issues with an external, experienced workplace investigator or mediator. If you need support in how to conduct an investigation or need to engage a mediator, contact WISE.

Why Forced Mediations are Doomed to Fail

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Mediation can offer effective resolution of workplace disputes. It's a fair process that allows parties to be heard and encourages them to find a resolution both sides are satisfied with. 

Mediation should only be used when parties are willing to discuss their differences. In the case of a bullying complaint, an investigation is required in the first instance, to determine whether there is an active grievance or complaint afoot, causing one of the parties to feel unsafe in the workplace. 

Forcing an unwilling employee to the mediation table can lead to resentment and even legal action. 

How does mediation work?

In mediation, a third party facilitates an open discussion between two parties to help settle a dispute rather than going to court. Both sides are encouraged to reach an acceptable compromise. For employers, the idea is to resolve a dispute quickly and economically. 

while there are pros and cons for mediation, one positive is that a verdict is never 'handed down' but rather, the parties come to the decision together. It's an empowering process, giving the parties input into the outcome. 

The advantage of mediation is that disputes can be reexamined and reframed in order to find the appropriate solution. It's a flexible process that can be tailored to the needs of the players involved. 

A key aspect though, is that all parties need to act in good faith, and be open to discussion and negotiation. If mediation is forced upon an employee, they are likely to feel that the process isn't fair, leading to resentment, a difficult negotiation and disagreement with the outcome. 

Can an employer compel an employee to attend mediation?

While an employer can enforce mediation, and take disciplinary action if an employee fails to attend, there must be grounds to do so, and these grounds must be established. Without grounds, an employer may be left open to a claim of adverse action or victimisation. 

It's important in these situations, however, to carefully consider the reasons why the employee may not wish to be part of mediation. For example, they may fear a power imbalance or bias against them or may feel unsafe in their workplace, due to a bullying complaint which has not been addressed. 

Outlining the process: the role of the mediator

A mediator is appointed to facilitate the process. The mediator does not provide legal advice, nor do they offer legal counsel. A neutral third party, the mediator's role is not to make a decision, but to encourage the parties to come to their own, mutually agreed-upon resolution. 

In most cases, the mediator will make an opening statement and then give each party the opportunity to do the same. During this time, each party will share why they have agreed to the mediation and what they would like to achieve from it. This is not the time to air grievances. 

Just as a meeting is kept on track with an agenda, it's best to have a mediation meeting framework in place to ensure all steps are taken care of and all issues are dealt with accordingly. The agenda should be clearly spelt out and followed. The mediator will help determine what should and shouldn't be discussed and it's the mediator's role to keep the discussion on track. 

During the mediation, private sessions may also be helpful so parties can refresh and refuel. The mediator will meet with the individual parties one at a time to discuss how they are feeling. This process may be repeated if necessary. 

Once each agenda item has been addressed and discussed, a decision will be mutually agreed upon. The mediator will review, finalise and capture the agreement in writing. 

Approaching mediation

Asking an employee to mediate their grievance is a reasonable request - after all, restoring the peace between employees is important for business, and ensuring employees relations are happy and healthy is paramount. 

However, mediation will only work if the parties truly want to mediate. This means they want to come to an agreement together, and there's no possible reason why one party may be afraid or uncomfortable during the process. 

Forced mediation is not likely to be effective, as it is one-sided. 

When expert assistance is required

If the parties cannot find agreement on all agenda items, or there are behavioural concerns, it may be necessary to explore possible resolution options with an experienced external workplace mediator. 

If you need some support in how to conduct a mediation, need to engage a mediator, or would like to resolve a workplace conflict, contact WISE