Thursday, June 21, 2012

Planning for Difficult Conversations: No Reason to Go It Alone

Having difficult conversations can be anxiety producing, so it can be helpful to plan in advance—and even more helpful to have the guidance of an objective, knowledgeable person. A great place to get this guidance is from your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

As an EAP, we offer solutions for many complex management and HR issues, including communicating with employees regarding work performance standards.

Here’s an example. Of course, due to confidentiality concerns, we can’t provide an actual case study, but this represents a not-unusual phone call.

Sam, an HR manager, called the EAP because he had to provide difficult feedback to an employee, Jessica, on her work performance. When working on more than one project at a time, Jessica became stressed and snapped at co-workers and even Sam.

Sam wanted assistance in preparing for the performance discussion. The EAP counselor, Julie, helped Sam to structure the upcoming discussion into three parts:

  1. Acknowledging the employee’s strengths
  2. Stating the issues and solutions; providing a timeframe; discussing ramifications of not making the necessary changes
  3. Again acknowledging the employee’s strengths; pointing out that the employee could indeed make the necessary changes
Then Julie and Sam prepared actual language for Sam to use. They also anticipated various directions the conversation might take and discussed ways to keep it focused on job performance. Julie and Sam also decided that Sam would formally refer Jessica to the EAP as part of the performance-management process.

Formal referrals to the EAP allow the manager, HR, and the EAP to act as partners. While HR and the manager hold the employee to performance standards, the EAP helps the employee to make the changes necessary to meet those standards. Of course, the employee is free to decline to use the EAP, but she would still be expected to improve her performance.

In this case, the conversation between Sam and Jessica went well, and Jessica agreed to address the areas of her performance that needed to be improved. She also agreed to use the EAP. The EAP provided confidential counseling and helped Jessica to more effectively manage her work performance.

If the conversation hadn’t gone well, Sam could have called the EAP again to plan next steps.

How have you prepared for difficult conversations at work? Do you have someone coach you?

--by Peter McPherson

Peter McPherson is a senior EAP consultant at Harris, Rothenberg International; he specializes in manager referrals and fitness for duty evaluations.

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