Having That Difficult Conversation

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Dismissing an employee is one of the most difficult and unpleasant tasks a Manager will have to deal with. And so it should be. Irrespective of the reason for dismissal, as a Manager you are taking away somebodies’ livelihood and that is not a responsibility that should be taken lightly.

It is for these reasons that many Managers shy away from having the conversation and when they do have it they do not deal with it as well as, in hindsight, they would have wished to, or as well as they have other conversations.

Here are some steps you can take to ensure your employee leaves thinking they’ve been treated fairly and respectfully:

STEP 1: Prepare thoroughly. Check the facts and then check them again

Thorough preparation is essential. Give yourself sufficient time to prepare for the meeting, this is one meeting that you cannot get wrong. Go over all the facts and be prepared to challenge them. Don't assume that they are correct; be certain.

To do this you should put yourself in the shoes of the employee.

Ask yourself… What questions would I ask, what facts would I challenge, how would I react to statements that were made, and the way they were made?

I once worked with an HR Director, Roy Harding, who had previously held a high-ranking position in the army before moving into HR. I remember Roy saying to me “time spent undertaking recognisance is never wasted”. So it is with preparation.

STEP 2: Plan the meeting but don't read from a script

All meetings should have a structure, this one more than any other, to ensure that you do not lose focus. Lack of preparation and planning should never be an excuse for managing the meeting badly.

You will need a comprehensive checklist that covers every essential element:

- What am I going to say in introduction?

- What is the best way to explain the structure of the meeting?

- How am I going to present the facts, verbally or with supporting documentation?

- At what point am I going to invite comment and reply?

- How much dialogue and discussion am I going to encourage and allow?

- How am I going to record what is being said?

- Despite my preparation how will I manage the unexpected – there is no guarantee it's going to go as I have planned? 

- What key points do I want to make, what phrases should I use?

One thing that you absolutely must not do is read from a script. It's disrespectful to the person sitting opposite you and prevents you engaging in the right way; with measured authority and empathy.

Prepare and have in front of you a single sheet with five or six key bullet points and phrases you want to use. In stressful meetings, it's easy to forget things. The checklist will prevent this from happening.

STEP 3: Do not forget that you are managing the meeting

Be clear, concise focused (and assertive) in the way you manage the meeting. Don’t adopt a timid, apologetic almost subservient approach.

Striking the right balance between the two contrasting styles is important.

It's often the case that when we don't want to have a conversation we tend not to make a good job of having it. Because we don't want to have it we rush it and make a "bit of a mess of it". This is why preparation is so important.

You should remember that it is you who have called the meeting and are therefore responsible for managing it effectively. From my experience, even in the most difficult situations employees expect their managers to conduct themselves in a way that represents their authority. They expect you to be in charge so be in charge.

STEP 4 :Time manage the meeting for it to be properly conducted

Allow sufficient time for the meeting, don't rush it, but equally don't allow it to become unnecessarily long

If you anticipate that the meeting will take 20 minutes, allow 30 but don't be surprised if it is over in 15. Encourage the employee to engage with you, challenge you and ask questions. Although you “might not want to hear it”, like other meetings this meeting should be a dialogue not a monologue.

The most difficult meeting I have ever had to manage was one where the employee was being dismissed. They sat there looking at me and didn't say a word. As people, we are used to engaging with others, when that does not happen we find ourselves outside of our comfort zone and run the risk of losing focus. Fortunately, I had anticipated this and prepared accordingly.

Summarise throughout and without being patronising, check that the employee understands what is being said. It’s not uncommon in stressful meetings for the employee to fail to fully comprehend what is being said to them.

The important thing is to be satisfied that all of the points that needed to be covered have been covered. 

At the end of the meeting summarise again and explain that you will confirm what has been discussed, and the outcome of the meeting in writing and when you will do this.

STEP 5: Confirm in writing to the employee and think about post meeting actions

Although not part of the conversation, it's important that matters are communicated in writing. The letter should summarise the matters discuss, the decision reached, the reason for reaching that decision and details of the appeal process if applicable.

Finally, you should think about what you are going to say to others. Don't underestimate the importance of managing this communication properly. Don't allow the grapevine to do your job for you.

So, in essence, the key is preparation. The old adage “fail to prepare and therefore prepare to fail” is as true here as it is in other situations. And by its nature this is one meeting you cannot, should not and need not manage badly.


Colin Lock, Managing Director UK

Mdina International