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HR: We need to talk

25 November 2013

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Having difficult conversations with staff is something that all managers dread, but with careful consideration and planning, such discussions need not be awkward

I have often had to advise employers (including dozens of GP and dental practices) on the challenges of dealing with tricky staff issues. The difficulty in resolving many of these problematic situations is often related to the apparent reluctance of managers to have a timely conversation with the staff member about the issue – to explain the problem, investigate all the circumstances and agree what needs to happen going forward.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that some managers have a natural aversion to starting conversations that might be embarrassing, angry, upsetting or downright unpleasant. But finding a way to start the discussion in a professional manner is often crucial to prevent the matter escalating unnecessarily and, sometimes, to avoid potential legal challenges from employees about the organisation’s handling of the issue.

In this article we will look at a few typically difficult situations and how a manager might address them. Then explore, in general, how difficult conversations can be made less difficult for all concerned.

Many workplace problem situations are centred on personal appearance, behaviour or hygiene – all areas into which many staff imagine managers are not permitted to venture. Managers’ fear of raising ‘personal’ issues, which may challenge the boundaries of a manager’s prerogative, often explains why such matters remain unresolved – until the partners, patients or colleagues complain that something needs to be done about it. The key, as is often the case, is in presenting the matter in a business-like, professional manner – always concentrating on facts rather than vague assertions – and making it clear that the policies and values of the practice require staff to meet certain standards, which may be in doubt.

Let’s see how this might play out in a few common scenarios.

Personal hygiene or grooming

These are always tricky conversations. Tackling staff who are themselves smelly or whose clothes are not pristine presents particular scope for embarrassment if the manager displays these feelings when speaking to the employee.

One starting point is to ensure that the practice staff handbook, or other equivalent documentation, specifically mentions that the nature of the public-facing service provided by the practice requires a high standard of personal hygiene and grooming. The handbook should say that concerns about individual compliance with these standards will be addressed in private with the staff member; that these conversations will be professionally conducted; they will be for the staff member’s benefit and that appropriate assistance will be given to help them to comply. This statement of standards can enable the manager to point to the fact that these apply to everyone and that there is an objective reason why concerns need to be brought to their attention.

Clearly, the conversation will need to start by the manager highlighting concerns about hygiene that either they have noted themselves or have been ‘brought to their attention’. Whenever possible, it would be desirable that the manager does not refer to ‘complaints’ being made about the staff member, as this will raise the prospect of having to name individual colleagues or patients and to give details of what has been said in complaints. In any event, it is most unlikely that a complaint has been made formally, and so it may be difficult to name the complainant.

The staff member should be asked if they are aware of the problem. If they are, the causes can then be explored and solutions discussed. If they are not, then some detail of the manager’s concern (on behalf of the practice) will need to be discussed with the person. 

Of course, it is possible that the problem is related to a health condition in which event the employee should be referred for advice about managing its effects. If the problem is related to lifestyle issues, then the manager may offer support to assist the employee in meeting the grooming standards of the practice – through advice or an offer of practical help, depending on the nature of the problem.

These issues are only likely to escalate to formal action if the informal approach outlined above is unsuccessful, and so it may be sensible to record attempts to deal with the matter informally on the employee’s personal file so that these can be referred to as evidence that the problem has been drawn to their attention and the opportunity for them to resolve it, without recourse to formal action, has been given. 

If formal warnings don’t succeed in resolving the matter then ultimately they may be dismissed with notice. If the process above has been followed and recorded, it is unlikely that there would be a risk of a legal challenge about the dismissal succeeding.

Inappropriate dress at work

This issue, unlike the one above, should be easier to address and to resolve – provided, again, that the staff handbook has made it clear that dress at the workplace needs to be ‘business-like’.

Allowances may need to be made for periods of very warm weather (insofar as this is ever a problem in the UK!) when slightly more casual clothing might be permitted and understood by patients.

Addressing problems of this kind should be reasonably straightforward if the staff handbook standards of dress are enforced consistently and with some tact. 

There may be legal risks to the practice if women are treated differently to men in this regard – as someone may quite reasonably point to there being ‘one law for one gender and another law for the other’. Court cases involving male Jobcentre workers being required to wear a shirt and tie and male supermarket staff being disciplined for failing to keep their hair short have highlighted the need to be even handed in these matters between the sexes. Common sense ought to dictate what is ‘business dress’.

In reality, the main problem with such conversations lie with managers in practices which have failed to make dress standards clear to staff. The manager may be accused of personal bias against the employee who simply has different dress tastes to the manager. Stating the standards clearly in advance should avoid heated exchanges.

Once again, an informal approach should resolve the matter, but formal action might need to follow if the ‘warning’ is ignored.

Abuse or misuse of communal work areas

Complaints that certain staff leave communal work areas, such as kitchens or toilets, in an unacceptable state create disproportionate grief for managers trying to enforce reasonable standards. It is hardly surprising that managers who try to address these problems by interviewing the ‘culprit’ often provoke an angry reaction from the staff member concerned.

A more sensible approach might initially be to issue a ‘general note’ to all staff explaining the problem and urging everyone to ensure that they leave these areas in an acceptable state. The exact nature of this ‘acceptable state’ will depend on the problem, but if the requirements of staff can be described in a fair amount of detail in the note, the less scope there will be for misunderstanding later. It should be explained that compliance with this standard is a requirement for all staff, and that the note is for the avoidance of doubt about what is expected of everyone.

Having drawn a line in the sand it should be possible to tackle individual failure to comply by reference to the ‘general warning’ in the note.

The initial discussion should be characterised as an ‘investigatory’ one because it may not always be clear exactly who is responsible for the lapse in standards. If the person admits their fault, it should be fairly straightforward to issue a formal disciplinary warning to them about their failure to comply with the clear instruction in your earlier note.

If they deny being responsible it will be necessary to speak to other staff about the matter and try to gather evidence to narrow down the search for the potential culprit. You are not required to prove beyond all  reasonable doubt who is responsible – it’s not a criminal process after all. You are only required to have a genuine belief that a particular employee did it and that belief has to be based on ‘reasonable grounds’. If the investigation is sufficiently thorough, it will establish these reasonable grounds, and a formal warning can be issued. If no improvement is achieved in that person’s conduct – despite further warnings (escalating in severity) – the employee can be dismissed fairly. 

Romantic workplace relationships

There is an argument that workplace personal relationships are purely a matter for the individuals concerned. Many people meet their future life partners at work, after all. The problem for employers is that colleagues may perceive actual (or imagined) nepotism or bias between the parties and this may create a difficult atmosphere in the workplace. 

Another problem may arise when workplace romantic relationships break up – leaving the parties in conflict and working relationships under strain. Extra-marital affairs between colleagues might create judgemental reactions on the part of some workmates, with similarly disruptive results.

Some organisations have experimented with trying to ban such workplace affairs, or at least getting the parties to ‘go official’ with the relationship by telling the management about them. The intention is often to avoid any subterfuge and, normally, to facilitate measures being taken by management to move one party or the other to a separate team or workplace. The difficulty with this approach is the employer trying to define at what point the relationship needs to be ‘declared’ and what can be done in a small workplace (such as a medical practice) to separate the parties.

In reality, trying to regulate or legislate for these relationships is fraught with difficulty for an employer. The only practical approach would be to address particular workplace issues as they arise.  

If the issues relate to breaches of practice rules or standards then, in the same way as any conduct matter would be dealt with, the facts should be established through an investigation, a conclusion reached by the investigator as to whether there some sort of disciplinary case to answer and the matter referred to another manager/partner for disciplinary action to take place.

If the matters are more minor, then informal action by the manager to explore the matter and suggest solutions would be more appropriate.

Starting and finishing the difficult conversation

It is not easy to be specific about how an individual problematic conversation might be conducted, but below are some pertinent general points for the manager to bear in mind.

Some questions to consider during the interview:

– Have I done all I can to put the other person at his or her ease?

– Have I reminded them how long we have for the discussion?

– Is it necessary for either of us to take notes, or might it be inhibiting?

 – What does the other person think?

When planning the meeting, ask yourself:

 – Have we clarified what the interview is about?

– Have we distinguished between the problem and its symptoms?

– Is there an issue behind the problem we are talking about?

– Does the other person admit the problem(s)?

 – Are they expecting me to solve the problem?

– Do I intend to suggest solutions or to help the other person work out their own?

 – Which seems more appropriate to me?

– How can I avoid antagonising the other person if I offer a different approach from what they are expecting?

One thing that adds to the potential tension in such meetings is the manager taking too long to get to the ‘elephant in the room’ (the matter that the meeting is really about).  

One way of avoiding prevarication is for the manager to plan the actual words they will use to open the meeting, and to write down the precise words they will use to get to the real issue in just three sentences. This may sound easy – but actually writing these sentences down can be quite a demanding task. One way of doing this may be to show a senior manager, peer or practice partner the words you intend to use for this and getting their reaction before you actually get into the discussion. The colleague may save you some embarrassment and the process of arriving at an agreed form of words should give the manager considerable confidence before and at the start of the meeting.

Using open questions to encourage the employee to speak about the issue is far more useful than talking at them and continually asking closed questions – which produce monosyllabic answers – or leading questions which merely get you the answer you wanted, rather than producing a productive exploration of the issues and beginning to find a solution.

It may be helpful to ask the employee what their solution might be to the problem. You may find it easier than you think to get to a resolution.

Don’t despair if you feel you’ve talked at length about a person’s problem without having reached a solution – the opportunity to talk at length sometimes is the solution. Good luck!