Your ultimate guide to tricky staff situations  

Turning difficulty into positivity

Tricky conversations are never easy. But as in any ongoing relationship, there may come a time when you need to have one with an employee – maybe because of their performance, a health issue, negative feedback from a customer or something else. There’s a lot at stake – losing trust, creating further conflict, or tarnishing long-term employment relationships. That means it’s important you get them right. Here’s how to do that.

Tricky conversations – what’s valid?

When you put different personalities under one workplace roof, there will be conflict. Often, issues stem from one of a few things:

  • Performance – maybe a worker has checked out, is only doing the bare minimum or has a negative attitude towards their role.
  • Health issues – everyone needs health days, but if some have more than their fair share, you might want to check in with them.
  • A relationship with a colleague – whether it’s a negative relationship or one you deem inappropriate, if it’s causing conflict, it needs to be addressed.
  • Unacceptable or distasteful behaviour – your employment contract will outline what’s unacceptable. If someone crosses those boundaries, you need to discuss it.
  • Concern for mental health – perhaps you notice out-of-character behaviour, low motivation or negativity towards themselves and others.
  • Negative feedback from a customer – your customers are always right, so if they’re concerned about your employee, you also need to be.

What not to do

We’ve seen first-hand some of the biggest mistakes managers make in a difficult situation: passive/aggressive hints, managing around the problem or avoiding it altogether. Often, they’re trying to protect people’s feelings, but this rarely works.

A few years ago, we were called to help a manager struggling with an employee’s body odour. He worried it was becoming an issue for other staff and wasn’t a good representation of their brand. Instead of addressing the issue and talking to her, he left deodorant on her desk. The message wasn’t received, the employee was hurt, and the approach only caused more conflict.

So, how do you handle a situation like this? Of course, the issue needs to be addressed, but it needs to come from a place of respect, trust and empathy – and focus on why it relates to a work environment.

Best steps to take

  1. Separate assumptions from facts

Feeling like you need to have a difficult conversation is usually enough to warrant having one. But before you sit down with your team member, clarify why it’s an issue. Think carefully – is it really a problem, or are you basing it on assumptions or your own bias?

2. Be prepared

    If you’ve decided you need to have a conversation, you want to approach it confidently and ensure you’re prepared. List the issues related to a work environment, but be careful not to label the person’s faults.  

    3. Act quickly

    Time is a big factor – the longer things are left, the bigger they get and the more challenging the conversation. Bite the bullet and address the situation before it becomes more of an issue.

    4. Be clear on outcomes

    There is no point in having a difficult conversation if you’re unsure what you want from it. Be clear on the outcome you need from the conversation and ensure your team members understand what you expect from them to resolve the issue.

    5. Know your rights

    You must be fully aware of your legal rights and what you can and can’t ask for. Insisting that a woman team member wears makeup might seem fair to you, but it may not be legal or reasonable. Before you have the conversation, make sure you know that your requests are within your rights.

    Difficult conversations – a window of opportunity

    It can be awkward, uncomfortable and scary, but if you can get it right, a difficult conversation can be an excellent opportunity to grow and build a relationship. Get it wrong, and it’s tough to undo. So, if you’re facing a difficult situation and unsure of the best way to approach it or need HR advice, call us – we’ve probably heard it before, and we’d love to help.