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.  

Managing Mental Illness in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What can employers do to support and effectively manage employees who may be struggling with their mental health?

With an estimated one in five Australian adults suffering from a mental illness in any given year, this is becoming an increasingly important question for organisations to answer. 

From talking to an employee with a mental illness to addressing performance concerns, here's how employers can help support workers with mental health issues. 

how to talk about mental illness with a worker? 

Employers can't be expected to be experts, but when speaking with an employee about a mental health issue, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the condition in question. This might include any symptoms, specific terms that relate to the condition and types of medications the employee is likely to be prescribed. 

How conversations are framed is crucial - employers should refer to employees as 'having' mental health conditions, as opposed to 'being' schizophrenic or depressed. Employers should also understand the difference between episodic and chronic mental health issues. 

Prior to conversations with employees about their mental health, employers need to ensure that they are prepared, have planned what they wish to discuss and offered the employee the opportunity to bring a support person with them. Employers may also make use of the assistance of a qualified mental health professional when approaching these meetings. 

concerns regarding an employee's mental health

While a physical injury might be obvious, it can be much more difficult to determine if an employee is struggling with their mental health. It is important for employers to remember that there isn't always an obligation for employees to disclose their mental health status. 

In these circumstances, an employer concerned about an employee's mental health can speak confidentially with them and advise them that they may be able to access support from a formal Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The employer may also wish to ask whether there is anything that they can do to modify or improve the workplace to assist the staff member. 

what to say to other employees

If an affected employee has volunteered details of their mental illness, and has agreed to disclosure, employers may wish to sensitively and respectfully disseminate information about the specific condition, or even arrange for mental health specialists to attend the workplace and provide information. 

Employers must not breach an affected worker's privacy and disclose matters that are personal to them. On some occasions, however, an employee's mental health condition may potentially impact other colleagues, or health and safety and must be disclosed. 

When a disclosure has been made, employers need to ensure co-workers:

  • Are supported in relation to any increased workload arising from their colleague's absence;
  • Have their concerns addressed and discussed in an appropriate forum;
  • Are offered access to internal or external counselling services;
  • Are protected from possible harm. 

Making reasonable adjustments

Workers who are struggling with mental health issues may find that they are able to contribute in a much more substantial way if their employer is prepared to make reasonable adjustments. These could include:

  • Flexible working hours or working from home arrangements
  • Moving an employee's physical location (i.e. into a quieter area, closer to a window, away from a co-worker who is triggering their condition)
  • Permitting employees to record meetings or take electronic notes if they are concerned about their memory. 

Addressing performance concerns

When an employer has concerns about an employee's capacity or capability to perform their duties, it is appropriate to apply the organisation's standard performance management system, and provide support to assist the employee. This support should be offered regardless of whether or not the employee has disclosed a mental health condition. 

Employers should consider:

  • Personal circumstances that may contribute to a worker's performance issue, as would be the case for all workers; 
  • Whether a mental illness may be contributing to the poor performance;
  • The seriousness of the performance concern (as for more serious matters, such as violence, there may be no option but to take strong disciplinary action regardless of whether there is a reason, such as a mental illness); 
  • Whether the performance concern relates to a key part of the job or whether reasonable adjustments can be made;
  • Encourage and enable the worker to discuss the performance concerns and whether there are any health issues that may have impacted on their performance. 

If the concern doesn't resolve and the adjustments don't work, employers may need to revisit the issue at a later date. 

If you'd like more information, check out our series of articles on this topic, starting with Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE can also assist with drafting and implementing policies and guidelines around disclosure, reasonable adjustments and speaking to colleagues about mental health.

Legal Issues When Conducting Workplace Interviews

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 29, 2018

When a workplace investigation has to be conducted, the most valuable information will generally be obtained through interviewing the staff involved in the incident and any witnesses. This information will play a critical role in determining what has happened or who or what was responsible. 

In order to obtain relevant and reliable information from the parties involved, good communication skills, an eye for detail and the ability to think on your feet is required. However, it is equally important to remember your legal obligations when interviewing staff.

legal issues

In conducting an interview process, key legal issues include:

  • The creation of statements 
    When an interview is conducted, a statement recording the comments made during the interview must be prepared and provided to the interviewee for review and, if the contents of the statement are agreed upon, signature. 
  • Audio recordings
    The laws on the creation of audio recordings differ in each Australian state. Generally speaking, if a person is advised that they are being recorded and they do not explicitly object, it is acceptable to continue with an audio recording. It is best practice to seek their explicit approval once recording has commenced. It is important to bear in mind that a transcript of the recording must be made available to the interviewee upon request. 
  • Support person
    Anybody involved in a workplace investigation, but especially the person against whom allegations have been made, must have the opportunity to have a support person of their choice present during each step of the investigative process, particularly during the interview. Witnesses have to be informed of this right in advance, in order to provide them with the opportunity to find a suitable support person.   

Procedural fairness and privacy

Perhaps the most important aspect of any workplace interview is ensuring that the process is conducted in accordance with the rules of procedural fairness. This includes:

  • The complainant and the respondent have the opportunity to provide their entire version of events and to have a support person present. 
  • The respondent is advised of the particulars of the allegations against them, so that they can respond in detail. 
  • The respondent is advised of their rights in relation to the investigative process.
  • Proceedings are not delayed unnecessarily.
  • The respondent has sufficient time to prepare for the interview process. Best practice is to allow at least 48 hours' notice but preferably more, depending on the complexity of the particulars. 
  • All relevant witnesses are interviewed.
  • Exculpatory and inculpatory evidence is taken into account.
  • All evidence is considered in an unbiased and impartial manner. 
  • No finding of guilt or otherwise is made until after all parties have had the opportunity to participate in the interview process and had the opportunity to respond to the allegations against them. 

All parties involved in the investigation are entitled to privacy. Witnesses who have disclosed information in confidence, may be intimidated by the fear of victimisation or backlash. This means that information divulged during the interview process is to be kept strictly confidential, unless it is absolutely necessary for the resolution of the dispute that it be shared beyond the immediate investigative team.

tips for successfully conducting an interview

In addition to taking the above steps, inexperienced interviewers may wish to consider obtaining specific legal advice, depending on the situation and the allegations which have been made. 

The interview process should always be undertaken from the perspective that only information which is collected fairly and decisions which are made in an unbiased manner will support disciplinary or administrative action against any employee. 

If you dismiss an employee or take disciplinary action against them without affording procedural fairness and establishing the relevant facts, it is possible that Fair Work Australia or other relevant tribunals may find the action was harsh, unjust or unreasonable in the circumstances. 

An investigation may be costly and time consuming, however the consequences of not conducting one may be even greater. If you need assistance in conducting investigations and undertaking investigative interviewing, contact WISE Workplace today, or purchase our 'Investigative Interviewing Book'.   

Stand By Me: The Role of the Support Person

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For an employee who is on the receiving end of disciplinary action, performance management or a workplace investigation, it is an upsetting, and even a potentially traumatic experience. 

Every employee involved in such a process is entitled to have a support person present during any meetings or interviews. 

A failure to afford an employee a support person can result in the process being deemed a breach of procedural fairness, and the outcome may be declared invalid upon review.

what is the role of a support person?

The role of the support person in any interview or meeting is to provide moral and emotional support, ensure that the process is fair, and to assist with communication - they are not required, or permitted, to act as an advocate, put forward a version of events or make an argument on behalf of the employee.

While support persons are entitled to ask some questions about the process, it is crucial that they don't respond or answer questions in terms of the substance of the matter, on behalf of the employee. 

A person engaged as a translator cannot generally act as a support person at the same time.

CAN AN EMPLOYER DENY A REQUEST FOR A SPECIFIC SUPPORT PERSON?

Only in certain exceptional circumstances the employer can refuse to have a specific person sit in as a support person. 

These circumstances include where the requested support person:

  • Holds a more senior role in the organisation than the person who is conducting the interview - thereby creating a risk of undue influence or pressure by the support person on the interviewer;
  • Could be disruptive to the process or has their own agenda (such as a former employee or somebody who is known to be on bad terms with management or the executive);
  • Is involved with the subject matter of the investigation or may be witness to some of the events. A person who is involved in the investigation in some way cannot be seen to be neutral and it is not desirable for a potential witness to have access to the respondent's evidence. 

Although employers may be able to object to a specific support person who has been requested, they are required to advise employees of their right to select a different person.

tHE ATTITUDE OF THE FAIR WORK COMMISSION

When determining cases of unfair dismissal, one of the factors the Fair Work Commission considers is whether the employee was unreasonably denied the right to have a support person present during any interviews. 

Best practice for employers

To ensure best practice in disciplinary or investigative processes, the following steps should be undertaken:

  • Employees must be advised of their right to select a support person for any relevant meeting
  • Employees must have the opportunity for the meeting to be organised, within reason, at a time when the support person is available
  • The support person must receive a clear explanation of their role - that is, to provide moral support only. 
  • The employer must take into account any additional considerations that could apply, such as those involved in an Enterprise Agreement or similar negotiated agreement with the employee. 

Offering employees a support person to attend any meetings and interviews related to disciplinary action, performance management, or workplace investigation with them, is crucial to the fair outcome of these processes. 

For more detailed information on conducting interviews, you can purchase a copy of our book Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators. If you're conducting a workplace investigation and need assistance, contact WISE Workplace today.