Conversations Managers Hate To Have
If you do a search online for the topic, ‘conversations managers hate to have,’ then you’ll find that the topic hasn’t been discussed much for quite a while. That’s a testament to just how adverse people are to these things.
Sticking your head in the HR sand, however, won’t obviate the need for them. You still have to have them. And as unpleasant as they are, you can (and should) prepare for them so that they are the least disagreeable. There’s no sense in making conservations you’d rather not have any more miserable for yourself or others than you have to. In fact, you’ll both feel a lot better if you do all that you can to mitigate the negativity associated with them.
Here are eight conversations that managers hate to have.
1. “You’re as useful as a chocolate teapot.”
As long as there are performance reviews, official or unofficial, there will be conversations about lackluster work. One of the most challenging parts about this conversation is that quite often managers have failed to articulate what good performance looks like. That may be due at least in part because they don’t know. They’re hoping the employee will know. Thing is that some employees are afraid to show any initiative, especially if when they have done so in the past it wasn’t well received.
A way to make this discussion more positive is to focus on giving advice that will help the individual to improve; that is, to treat it as an opportunity for growth. But it has to be done in a way such that the person who is underperforming can recognize the difference between what they’re doing and what they should be doing, and clearly see themselves taking the steps necessary to go from one to the other.
Here’s a ridiculous example:
Suppose you’re counseling a would-be astronaut. You tell the person, “If you want to be an astronaut, then all you have to do is get into orbit.” That’s what we call a “duh” moment. The question is, what are you as a manager going to do to make this possible? What training and expertise does the individual need to obtain so that you’ll select them for the program that will allow them to do so?
It helps no one to say that you have to “get into orbit” if you don’t provide the means for them to do so.The same thing happens in the workplace. Employees are told that they have to improve, but they’re not given opportunities where they can demonstrate that such growth has taken place.
2. “Your services are no longer required.”
The immortal words, made popular by the likes of Donald Trump and Sir Alan Sugar, “You’re fired,” aren’t pleasant to hear or to say. There’s a finality - almost a futility - to them. It’s the end, and there’s nothing you can do once they’ve been said.
You can soften the message by saying that you’re going to 'let someone go,' but it still amounts to the same thing, and everyone knows it.
The thing is that quite often, it doesn’t matter what the reason is. It could be consistent poor performance, but it could also be another euphemism for services no longer required - restructuring - which seems to affect those at the bottom of the hierarchy much more than those at the top.
No matter the reason, you need to show compassion wherever possible, especially where the circumstances of the decision seem outside the control of the the parties affected. Behaving like a robot helps no one. You don’t want to be cold about it.
Show some compassion - some emotion; after all, it’s an emotional experience for them, no matter how stoic they appear to you. Chances are, too, that it’s an emotional experience for you, too, so there’s no point in trying to hide it. Only someone with sadistic tendencies takes pleasure in firing anyone.
You can talk about how things didn’t work out between you, or how you valued their help, but that a time had come where you both need to go your separate ways.
Another way to lessen the impact on people is to warn them in advance. You could say that “we’re going to be letting X people go based on seniority and expertise” for instance. “The redundancies will occur in the coming couple of months. We’ll give you a good reference for your next job, but if you have concerns about working here, then talk to your manager.” And then make sure that managers have good answers.
3. “We selected someone else.”
This is a discussion about who didn’t get promoted, or who didn’t get a pay rise.
This one shouldn’t surprise anyone as long as you set the correct expectations beforehand. Of course, this doesn’t always happen. In fact, managers have been known to hint at all kinds of favourable outcomes just to get people to do what they want them to do. Indeed, one study suggested that doing so was entirely acceptable. And so if this is your practice, then you shouldn’t be surprised by the disappointment and demoralised behaviour when you have to have this conversation.
4. “Your peers don’t like you.”
Most people already know if they’re liked or simply tolerated. And as they expect to get along with people, they’ll already feel uncomfortable if they don’t. And so you telling them that they’re disliked won’t help anyone. That means that you need to discover what lies at the root of the problem. It’s also why you want to include your employees in the hiring process of new ones.
In the early days, Apple conducted group interviews. That’s is everyone in the company interviewed candidates for each position. All of them had to feel good about the person, otherwise they weren’t hired.
When you include peers in the hiring process, then future problems with interpersonal relationships can be nipped in the bud. And that’s because they’ll sense whether or not there’s a chemistry between them. Don’t simply grab the most talented person you can find and hope that everyone will get along regardless.
What can you do if it turns out that someone really is disliked by everyone else? You have to ask. You have to ask the complainers what the problems are specifically. It could be that they’re jealous of the competence or success of that person, or there could be something legitimate. You have to suss that out; but just because a group of people dislike an individual doesn’t mean that the individual is in the wrong or is even the wrong person for the job. It could well be that the group needs to grow up and smell the coffee, and raise their own game.
If there really is a problem, such as some form of harassment or bullying, then you have to deal with that, too, and quickly. Such things, if left unchallenged, can cause your best people to leave, and everyone else to feel demoralised. A good first place to start is with your HR department or, if you don’t have one, whoever is responsible for the legal side of things.
5. “When was the last time you took a shower?”
It’s unlikely that you’d put it quite like this, but there are those who are unaware that they or their clothes smell awful.
There’s a story that at university, one student put deodorant on every day, but made no attempt to wash that part of his body before he did. It seems hard to imagine that one could be so naïve, but these things do happen. Observe, sometime, how students do their laundry.
It could be simply a lack of awareness. Some people do grow up in a barn, or at least next to one.
It could also be signs of mental health issues.
6. “You haven’t seemed like yourself lately.”
You might ask this question if you notice a demonstrable change in their behaviour for the worse.
It could be that there’s a domestic crisis lurking in the background, such as the serious illness of a spouse or a child. It could be that that person has become depressed, too. The COVID restrictions placed on people are known to have caused mental illness in many people and, as you’ve noticed, even as those limitations have been removed, it hasn’t meant that employees suddenly felt better about everything. This is going to be a long term problem, especially if restrictions are introduced again, however limited. And that’s because people will begin to give up hope. The feeling of hopelessness is a precursor to other much more serious mental health problems, and you’ll need to be on the lookout for them.
You can’t assume that everything is fine. Watch the mood of the people who work for you and note any significant changes. For instance, do they get angry more easily, or is anyone who was once happy now sullen or reclusive? Is anyone who was once punctual now chronically late, or whose manner of dress was once meticulous, now is slovenly. Big swings in behaviour portend serious mental issues.
7. “What have you been sniffing?”
You might ask this question in jest, though there may also be a serious side to it.
This could be part of the “you haven’t been yourself lately” conversation because mood shifts, or sudden changes in how they dress for work, poor performance, and so on can all be indicative of drug use.
You must tread carefully so as to not find yourself in a legal quagmire. But if you have systematically ruled out other causes, then this is something you may have to consider.
8. “Your attire is inappropriate.”
This is something that should be in your employee’s contract. There should be no surprises. And while you can’t legislate for every eventuality, you can use examples in the contract that clearly indicate what is acceptable, and what isn’t. For instance, you could say something like “employees are expected to dress in business casual attire that is not provocative or form fitting, or distracting.”
Your HR office or legal department can advise you on the exact wording if you have any doubts.
And here’s a conversation that you shouldn’t have.
9. “Is there a bun in the oven?”
You may be curious. You may want to know for operational reasons. It doesn’t matter. It’s none of your business. Mum’s-to-be generally are so excited about it that they won’t be able to keep a lid on it for long. So let them tell you.
In your company policies, however, you could (and should) include guidelines for how your organisation will work with prospective parents, what the current laws are for maternity leave, and so on, and you could encourage employees to inform you about their plans so that all of you can work together to make the experience enjoyable for everyone; but you never want people to get the idea that you’re going to look upon it as something which is negative.
Bottom line: Make sure you have policies in place, and which are well-known to everyone, and then mind your own business. You’ll know soon enough. And what ever you do, don’t ask if they’re coming back. Whether they do or not doesn’t change your organisation’s policies. If you adhere to them, then you’ll be fine.
So that’s it. Eight conversations that you’d rather not have, but probably will have to at one time or another.
Forewarned is forearmed. Make sure that you’re ready for them.
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