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Acas launches guidance on ‘difficult conversations’ at work


Acas, the workplace relations organisation, has launched guidance to help HR managers have 'difficult conversations' – about performance, conduct or personal matters – can in the workplace.

As an HR professional, being able to talk about sensitive and emotive issues is an important part of the job, but it is also one of the toughest. If handled badly, these conversations damage team dynamics, lower morale and badly affect levels of attendance and performance. In difficult economic circumstances, when your resources are already stretched, is this outcome really an option?

A survey by CEDR found that 63% of managers and employees questioned felt their organisation was not prepared to deal with challenging conversations. Acas' own experience indicates that no matter how big or small the problem it is often made a lot worse by the mishandling of these critical one-to-one interactions.

Adrian Wakeling, Acas senior guidance editor, said:"Many line managers go into difficult conversations with very good intentions, but often make the mistake of prolonging or intensifying the problem, rather than restricting or resolving it.

"Knowing when to expand a conversation – by seeking clarification and gaining understanding – and when to restrict it – in terms of deciding what happens next – can often only be learned through experience or the right training."

Acas' advice

Having one-to-one conversations about personal, medical or emotional issues requires a great deal of sensitivity and empathy. It also involves trying to stay in control of your emotions as well as the situation. Follow this checklist:

Set the right tone:

  • Explain the purpose of the meeting
  • Adopt a calm and professional manner
  • Reassure the employee about confidentiality
  • Focus on the issue, not the person

State the issues and give evidence:

  • Tell them about the problem and give examples
  • Explain how the problem is affecting the individual and the team
  • Is the problem new or have you spoken about it before?

Ask for an explanation:

  • Listen to what the employee is saying and try to recognise any underlying causes of unhappiness or stress
  • Keep an open mind and don't jump to conclusions
  • Introduce your questions and explore the issues together
  • Avoid emotive language or getting diverted from the issue

Agree a way forward:

  • Ask the employee for proposals to resolve the problem
  • Discuss the options
  • Make a decision – you are in charge
  • Arrange a follow-up meeting, if necessary
  • Monitor and feedback on progress and give support where needed
  • Document any agreement and give a copy to the employee.

View the new advice booklet 'Challenging conversations and how to manage them'