Tips for Having Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Lynda McAlary-Smith

First published on 23 July on Fairfax websites

Managers are unlikely to make it through their working lives without needing to have a difficult conversation with an employee.

There are many reasons why a difficult conversation might be necessary, from discussing a leave request or pay rise, to dealing with more serious employee grievances.

No matter what the nature of the issue is, it’s important to deal with it straight away, rather than allowing the issue to linger and potentially worsen.

However, it’s also important to undertake a careful, considered approach because a difficult conversation handled insensitively can affect not only an organisation’s relationship with an individual employee, but also its wider workforce.

Managers should demonstrate to all staff a commitment to resolving issues fairly to reach positive outcomes. Managers also shouldn’t underestimate the effect that one disgruntled employee can have on the morale of an entire workplace.

There are practical steps you can take to make difficult conversations easier and more constructive.

  • When you meet with an employee, state what the issue is right away. Don’t preface the conversation with unnecessary small talk.
  • Stick to the facts, rather than relying on opinions or hearsay, and give the employee examples where possible. Explain how the issue is impacting on your organisation. Focus on the issue at hand rather than the person.
  • Listening to the employee and considering their point of view is vital. There could be a range of facts or situations you don’t know about. Keeping an open mind will help you to consider alternate solutions to problems.
  • Be prepared that the employee may react emotionally. You should consider telling the employee they can bring a support person to the meeting if they want to.
  • And remember that you may need to manage your own emotions as well. It’s important to remain calm and to objectively focus on the issues.

The ideal result is to reach agreement with the employee on a plan for resolving the issue at hand. Gaining the employee’s commitment to a plan-of-action vastly increases the chances that it will be successful.  It also makes good business sense to keep a record of your discussions.

Finally, make sure you actually take the actions you have agreed to and follow up with the employee to ensure the issue is being resolved. It is also important to keep communication channels open and ensure the employee is comfortable approaching you to discuss any matters that arise.

When workplace issues are left unresolved or handled poorly they can cause considerable harm to staff morale, workplace culture and productivity, resulting in absenteeism and higher employee turnover.

However, when difficult conversations are executed quickly and successful outcomes are achieved, it can improve staff engagement and confidence and create a happier, more productive workplace.

Having difficult workplace conversations is the topic of the first free course to be offered through the Fair Work Ombudsman’s new Online Learning Centre at

Lynda McAlary-Smith is the Fair Work’s Ombudsman’s Executive Director of the Education and Major Employers branch. Lynda’s role is to lead the Agency in its education focus and reaching its goal of creating fairer Australian workplaces.

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