Conversations about sensitive topics are a kind of necessary evil for HR managers. No one really wants to have them, but they’re required to keep everyone on the same page. And, whether it’s a discussion on policy or a commentary on performance, there’s a way to approach delicate topics to keep those awkward moments low while still achieving your purpose. Follow these six rules to cut back on blushing and you’ll get your point across.
Before you approach an employee about a potentially awkward conversation, make sure you’ve laid the groundwork and done your homework first. If it’s about a complaint from another team member, for example, see if you can see the offending interaction first-hand through observation. Or, if you think an employee is violating a workplace policy, look it up in the handbook and make sure you know exactly which policies are being ignored and your company’s stance on how to approach the issue.
Choose the Right Setting
The setting in which you choose to have an awkward or delicate conversation should always mirror the seriousness of the conversation. A quick check-in about dress code, for example, might be better received in a more casual setting–over coffee or in the employee’s office. But more serious issues–performance, policy, or pay–should be initiated in a formal setting, such as your office or a conference room. The setting will effectively set the tone for the conversation, so choose wisely.
Opt for Clarity
When in doubt, clarity is always the best policy for awkward conversations. If you know exactly what needs to change and why, be forthright with the employee. It might seem uncomfortable, but being clear and concise during your conversation can limit future awkward moments, especially if you’ve been ambiguous with your requests. After your conversation, the employee should know exactly where he or she stands and what they can specifically do to rectify a situation. “Try harder!” isn’t nearly as effective as “Improve efficiency by utilizing scheduling software and checking in with your manager weekly.”
Ask Open-Ended Questions
An HR conversation shouldn’t be a monologue. You need to hear the employee’s side of things and see if you can view the issue through another lens to better understand what’s happening. Make sure to ask the employee open-ended questions, like “Why do you think this is happening?” or “What ideas do you have to make this run more smoothly?” Getting employee input helps them feel more like a part of the team and less like an unruly student getting called to the principal’s office.
Offer to Help
A an HR manager (whether you’re a dedicated HR employee or a more general manager), it’s your job to offer support to the employee. You’re not a disciplinarian; rather, you’re a support system to help employees improve their chances for success. When appropriate, be compassionate and offer your help. Perhaps a couple of employees at odds need a mediator, or some extra understanding when it comes to missed work due to medical issues. See where you can lend a hand so the employee doesn’t feel isolated or embarrassed.
End on a Positive
Whenever possible, finish your conversation on a positive note. Even if you simply remind the employee that he or she is a valuable member of the team or inject a little humor at the end of the conversation, it might be enough to help soothe the burn of an awkward convo. Of course, use humor sparingly; in some cases, it’s not appropriate. Instead, affirm that you have faith in the employee’s ability to act and rectify, with a promise to check in at a later date.
Even though some HR conversations can leave your cheeks burning, it’s never a good idea to let fragile topics fester. By being open, honest, and clear with employees, you can get through those uncomfortable conversations while still achieving the results you need.
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