Having difficult conversations with employees is one of the less fun things about being a manager, but it is a vital aspect of your role. Dealing with sensitive topics like conflicts and performance issues is crucial for building and maintaining a productive and positive work environment.

In this post, we will look into the effective strategies for managing difficult conversations at work, while also complying with NZ employment law.

Understanding the law

Before you start it is essential to understand the rights and obligations of both you and your employee. New Zealand employment law is built on the premise of Good Faith. Employment NZ defines it as, “… dealing with each other honestly, openly, and without misleading each other. It requires parties to be active and constructive in establishing and maintaining a productive relationship in which they are responsive and communicative.” In short, it is expected that you will co-operate with each other and work towards a positive solution.

Top tips

We often put off having difficult conversations because we are nervous about conflict. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you prepare well and are committed to making this a positive experience focused on resolving a problem, you will find that conflict does not have to be part of the process.

Prepare and plan

The first step is to take the time to prepare thoroughly. Make sure you are clear about what the purpose is and any potential challenges. You will need to gather relevant information but be careful who you speak to as it can come across as gossip or breaching privacy. Write down an agenda so that the meeting is focused and productive.

Choose the right time and place

It is really important to select an appropriate time and private setting for the conversation. Avoid public spaces or moments when either party may feel rushed or distracted. Your employee will not open up and feel valued if people are walking past or looking in through the window. And they will have to deal with the gossip and questions from their colleagues.

Active listening

Actively listening can be hard – it requires you to listen to the other person’s perspective without interrupting or passing judgment. This helps your employee to feel that they can trust you and that you understand them. If your employee does not feel safe, they won’t open up about the real reason for the issue and you are unlikely to reach a workable solution.

Ask questions

Don’t make assumptions about an employee’s behaviour. Take the time to ask questions and listen to their perspective. Make sure your body language is open and avoid rushing to fill silences. This approach builds trust and leads to more effective conversations.

Use constructive language

Your language needs to be positive, constructive and respectful. This is not about telling the employee off. Focus on the issue rather than attacking the individual. Use “I” statements to express your concerns and provide specific examples to support your points.

Find common ground

If you are going to have a successful outcome, look for areas of agreement to build upon. This approach encourages a problem-solving mindset rather than creating an adversarial, personality-based dynamic. Making sure you have clear and shared expectations means you are likely to have an effective and sustainable outcome.

Offer supportive solutions

Instead of pointing out problems, focus on potential solutions and suggestions for improvement. Ask the employee what they think could be done. After all, it is their job so they need to drive the solution! You can then discuss this and agree on the actions required to move forward.

Document the conversation

As always, keeping notes during the meeting is very important. If the employee is comfortable with it, you could record the meeting or you can write notes to document the key points and any agreed-upon actions. This documentation serves as a record for future reference and can provide clarity if any disputes or follow-up discussions arise. After the meeting, follow up in an email or letter outlining the issues and the agreed actions.

Getting the process right

Because difficult conversations are usually about something you want the employee to change, or you might be delivering bad news, you may have to frame the conversation as part of an employment law process e.g., restructure, disciplinary, or performance improvement. The guiding principles are to follow a fair process, maintain confidentiality and avoid discrimination or harassment.

In order to get the outcome you want and to minimise the risk of a personal grievance, it is vital that you follow the right steps under NZ employment law. As soon as you know you have a problem, please call us so we can advise you on the next steps.

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