For employers, finding the best strategies and solutions to manage employee relations issues and minimise the risk of legal claims is key.
A tool that we consider to be particularly effective in this regard is the use of “good conversations” between management and/or HR, and employees.
In this article we consider what a good employment conversation looks like, what the benefits are of having such conversations and practical tips you can use.
A good employment conversation involves management and/or HR speaking openly and honestly with an employee in respect of the issue that has arisen, whether that is performance concerns, intermittent absences, concerns about the employee’s capability for the role or repeated minor misconduct.
If opportunities for good conversations are neglected, for example preferring to communicate through more formal channels such as email, the chance to resolve matters before it escalates is often missed, or the path to the desired outcome becomes much harder to navigate as positions become entrenched.
By speaking with an employee face to face at an early stage and being clear about the issue at hand, it allows an opportunity for an open dialogue to take place and to set standards and expectations, while also giving the employee room to provide their thoughts and responses to the matters raised.
This approach sends the message that the employer is willing to put in the time and the effort to manage the relevant problems in a supportive and constructive manner.
Employers should not underestimate the power of employee facetime. By being in a room together, you can more easily pick up any misunderstandings and resolve them quickly, and better control the tone and intention of your message in a way that is much harder to achieve over email or other written correspondence.
It also helps to cut through the noise and “point-scoring” that can sometimes take place when the issue is being managed at arm’s length through protracted correspondence. Employees often feel as though they need to put their position ‘on the record’ and so respond to every written point raised.
A reluctance to get into difficult conversations with employees is understandable. Sometimes the fear of such interactions is motivated by concern that in doing so, you are operating outside of the parameters of internal HR policies or going against the normal approach taken.
However, this hands-off approach can, and quite often does, backfire. We look at a few examples below in which a conversation early on in the process, can avoid a more confrontational situation further down the line.
A common scenario involves an employee who has gone off sick from work for a period. The employer’s policy provides for full sick pay at its discretion, but in practice full pay is paid as a matter of course.
The employee’s sickness absence extends again and again and full pay continues throughout. There has been no communication with the individual while they have been off or any mention of limits or parameters in relation to sick pay.
Understandably, a business will not want to continue paying full pay where an employee is off sick indefinitely. But a failure to engage with the issue and have that conversation means that the eventual decision to stop full pay inevitably results in a dispute with the employee and will often be argued to be disability discrimination.
It is important to remember that the fact that somebody is off work unwell and/or meets the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 does not automatically mean that these conversations should not take place. In fact, the opposite is often true. Employers are under an obligation to provide on-going support and contact with absent employees and so attempts should be made to maintain a reasonable dialogue.
Another common scenario relates to performance concerns, which may or may not be due to an employee’s health condition.
If these concerns are ignored and not raised with the individual, it becomes a much more difficult conversation later down the line. One initial problem ignored can easily lead to other problems arising, such as a failure to deal with performance concerns before an employee goes off on long-term sickness absence.
While the performance concerns may have existed for some time before the absence, if these have not been confronted, it is a much more difficult issue to address when the employee returns to work.
Any subsequent conversation regarding their performance will likely come as a surprise and may lead to discrimination allegations on the basis that their illness is the underlying reason rather than performance.
Of course, all relevant factors will need to be considered and some careful pre-planning is required prior to having such conversations, particularly where there is an underlying health condition.
If the employee is on sick leave already, you may need to consider making reasonable adjustments to facilitate the conversation you are planning to have. For example, hosting in a neutral and easily accessible venue, scheduling the meeting to avoid commuting times, or perhaps allowing the individual to be accompanied by a partner/relative.
In all cases, it is important to remember that not having the conversation may be higher risk in the long term than avoiding the conversation in the short term.
To help management and/or HR feel empowered to embark on good employment conversations we recommend the following:
We offer training to our clients on the best way to approach difficult conversations. If you would like assistance with any particular employment issues, or training on good employment conversations or more generally, then please get in touch.
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