Difficult Conversations and the Role of a Support Person

As a business owner or manager its inevitable that you will need to have difficult conversations from time to time, whether that’s with business partners, clients, suppliers or employees.

While many people tend to avoid potential conflict, and shy away from these interactions, its important to understand the value in having difficult conversations in the workplace, and the value this can bring, through establishing boundaries and expectations, and communicating your business values, which is of course part of developing healthy workplace culture.

Types of Difficult Conversations

In the workplace, there can be many difficult conversations that need to be had, such as:

  • Sharing tough decisions or news with employees,
  • Confronting someone about their unacceptable behaviour,
  • Discussing uncomfortable issues such as how an employee dresses or their personal hygiene,
  • Managing poor performance,
  • Resolving conflict between 2 or more employees, or
  • Ending someone’s employment.

Tips for developing skills to have these conversations

Confronting employees is not always an easy task, but learning the skills to manage these conversations well is critical to ensuring you provide a safe, healthy and harmonious workplace for all your employees.

Like developing any skill, it takes practice, so don’t avoid opportunities to speak with your employees, even if the topic seems uncomfortable or difficult to raise.

Some key things to remember are:

  • Use a direct approach, and give notice where possible
  • Explain the reason you want to speak and what you want to achieve
  • Be honest and respectful
  • Clarify the issue and why it’s important
  • Stick to the facts and avoid overly emotional or personal comments
  • Listen with respect and be open to their comments
  • Determine an outcome that both parties can agree on, to move forward

Depending on the topic of the conversation, and the possible outcomes, it is also a good idea to take notes and confirm the conversation with a follow up email or formal letter to the employee.

Remember if recording the conversation, you’ll need to have permission from the other people in the meeting to do this.


Offering a Support Person

There are certain conversations with employees where it is a good idea to offer the employee a Support Person. While there is no strict obligation under the Fair Work legislation to do this, if the meeting may lead to dismissal in the future, offering an employee to have a support person present will be looked favourably upon should a case be presented to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Consider advising the employee that they may bring a support person to the meeting, especially if your conversation with an employee is to discuss:

  • A formal complaint made against the employee,
  • Unsatisfactory performance,
  • Discussions of allegations against the employee, and/or
  • Disciplinary issues
  • Termination of employment (e.g. redundancy).

The employee can choose their own support person who may be a work colleague, friend, family member, industrial representative or a lawyer. If the meeting is being conducted by a small business however, a lawyer cannot act in a professional capacity.

What should a support person do during the meeting?

The role of a support person in these meetings is to provide the employee with emotional and practical support. They may give advice to the employee or answer on their behalf if the employee is unable to do so, or the support person can request a short break during the meeting. They can take notes during the meeting, and ask questions about the process if this is unclear.

What should a support person NOT do during the meeting?

It is important that the support person does not:

  • provide personal opinions during the meeting,
  • act as an advocate, or
  • argue for the employee.

These actions are inappropriate and can be counterproductive to the process, as well as potentially not being in the employee’s best interests.

What if the support person disrupts the meeting?

Going into the meeting with a support person, it’s a good idea to explain their role so they understand their purpose during the meeting and what the boundaries are. If the support person becomes argumentative or their behaviour is disruptive, remind them they are there for support only and cannot be an advocate for, or speak on behalf of the employee.

Should the support person become too obtrusive, you have the right to stop the meeting and re-schedule it, and perhaps suggest to the employee that they choose another support person.

Can employers have their own support person present?

Yes.  If you anticipate that the meeting may be difficult and/or there could be complaints made about how the meeting is conducted, it may help to have a support person present who can witness the conversation, take notes, as well as advise of any questions that may have been missed.

Avoiding these tough conversations can lead to employee performance or behaviour issues escalating, risks to the business if complaints or dismissals are not managed effectively, and impacts on the rest of the team and their perception of the workplace, team and/or management.

Getting through difficult conversations and meetings can be quite challenging for some business owners and managers, however with the right approach and using some of our tips, you’ll find these situations can be opportunities to develop relationships, your workplace culture, and your own leadership skills.

If you want help developing your management skills, or support with difficult conversations in your workplace, get in touch with our team today.