With the possible exception of most teenagers and all the characters in EastEnders, few people actually relish confrontation.  In the workplace this anxiety is compounded by the fear that falling out with a colleague will lead either to an eternity of moody silences and catty remarks, or some Wagnerian undoing in the Employment Tribunal.  Little wonder that most managers fight shy of challenging conversations for so long as they can.   Little wonder also that this will almost invariably be the wrong thing to do.  

From the Employment Tribunal’s point of view, an issue not commented on by the employer is an issue which may be found not to exist, especially in discrimination claims – if only you had told her of your performance concerns before she announced her pregnancy, it would have been impossible for the employee to claim that the criticisms were just borne of discrimination.   From the employment relations perspective, an employee not told of a concern can usually legitimately assume (or at least say that he assumed) that there was nothing wrong.  Therefore a big hand, please, for the new ACAS Guidance on “Challenging conversations and how to manage them” http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=3799.   

While some it is pretty obvious, the Guidance contains some helpful pointers for nervous HR/line management:-  

(i)         things rarely get better at work for not being discussed when they arise.  Get on with it, urges the Guidance;  

(ii)        but prepare yourself in advance.  What do you know about the relevant facts.  You should not agree to conduct a challenging conversation on behalf of someone else unless you are very clear as to the grounds for it;  

(iii)       and do not go into bat with the employee without first ensuring that your line management/HR know what you are doing.  If it goes sour then you will need the air-cover which their knowledge provides.  If you are operating out on a limb and the wheels come off then somehow it will be your fault both that the conversation was not had earlier, and then also that it was;  

(iv)       is this to be on or off the record?  Do not confuse the two.  ACAS notes that “many managers feel that the nature of the encounter forces them to act out of character – perhaps appearing more strict and business-like than in normal day-to-day interactions”.   This is true, and no bad thing because ultimately the manager is carrying out a legal function with potential legal consequences. He cannot assume that the employee will be prepared to accept the complete Horlicks the manager makes of the meeting just on the strength of their (former) relationship;  

(v)        do not be too definite – difficult or challenging conversations generally need to be at least as much listening as talking.  You should very rarely go into them with your mind already made up about either the facts and/or next steps.