Tips to manage complex conversations in the workplace


Complex conversations have fast become an essential part of the HR function. Three experts share tips to help facilitate challenging discussions effectively – from legal considerations to guiding leaders.

Amid the many geopolitical and local challenges taking place at the moment – such as the imminent US elections and enduring global conflicts – complex conversations have become an inevitable fixture in workplaces, and it often falls on HR to navigate them while also considering the psychosocial safety of those involved. 

This means HR needs to learn how to handle these conversations effectively and embrace the roles of mediator, educator and advocate for inclusivity and harmony in the workplace.

In an AHRI webinar, which is now available on demand for members, a diverse panel of experts offer guidance to assist HR in preparing for, strategising and leading complex conversations at work.

Common complex conversations 

HR professionals are well-versed in having difficult conversations. In many respects, it’s part and parcel of the job. From keeping employee tensions at bay to supporting managers to deal with underperformance, most HR professionals mastered the art of delivering difficult news early on in their careers.

However, in recent years, as professional and personal boundaries have blurred, the nature of these conversations has become more complex. Below are some common topics cropping up in workplaces all across the country.

  1. Internal dynamics and external stressors

HR discussions are increasingly centred around navigating internal politics amid the transition to hybrid working models, says Mathew Paine FCPHR, Chief People Officer at Australian Financial Complaints Authority and member of AHRI’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Panel.

On top of this, issues such as burnout, work-life balance and flexibility expectations loom large, reflecting broader societal shifts. 

“At a national level, we’ve seen big topics such as the Voice referendum, racism, LGBTIQA+ rights and, most recently, the Israel/Palestine conflict,” he says.

When broaching these topics, it’s important to keep the following in mind:

  • Have a plan – If you’re facilitating the resolution of a disagreement between two employees, for example, consider preparing a few key messages that you want to get across, such as the fact that you respect both sides of the argument, you’re not there to determine who’s right or wrong and then reinforce your company’s values of respecting everyone’s perspectives and experiences.
  • Choose your timing wisely – having a complex conversation when emotions are high is rarely a good idea. Even if people expect you to step in and mediate a challenging situation in the moment, there’s nothing wrong with saying something like, “I’d like us all to take a moment to gather our thoughts. Let’s get together tomorrow morning to discuss this.”
  • Give participants a heads up – Whether you’re having a pre-planned conversation with someone directly or facilitating a conversation between others, make sure to give participants enough notice, so they can make informed decisions about what they might like to say or, if it’s a disciplinary meeting, if they might want to bring in a support person.

Another challenging aspect is that people often demand others to take a position on these issues, says Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR, Founder and CEO of Mwah. (Making Work Absolutely Human).

“But many people are saying, “I don’t want to say anything; I don’t want to have an opinion.” And that becomes quite a sensitive topic in itself because people then say, “Well, then you’re not supporting the side that I believe is right,” so that becomes a difficult one to navigate.”

Make it clear that people are under no obligation to share their personal views in a work context and that staying quiet is their right.

Read HRM’s guide to having difficult conversations for more tips.

  1. Economic realities and organisational changes

The current economic environment presents another layer of complexity for HR, says Brighton-Hall.

“One very difficult conversation that HR is having is about the transformation of organisations [during economically challenging times]… many organisations are using this as an opportunity to cut staff.”

HR professionals are increasingly tasked with managing these conversations, which can have a cumulative impact on HR’s own wellbeing.

When addressing economic or job insecurity, it’s important that HR and managers:

  • Speak transparently – Communicate clearly and concisely about the realities of the situation as it pertains to your business, but do so with empathy at your core.
  • Acknowledge people’s concerns – Don’t try to sweep anything under the rug. If people are concerned about their jobs, or perhaps they’re colleagues’ roles have been made redundant, acknowledge how challenging this might be for them and share your next steps with them.
  • Give employees a voice – During times of uncertainty, people need to feel heard. Consider setting up listening sessions or an ‘ask me anything’ forum where employees can share their concerns and perspectives, and hear from their colleagues.

Read HRM’s guide to talking about job insecurity.

Regardless of the complex conversation you’re having, there are key tips for HR to keep in mind, such as:

1. Ensuring employees feel safe and respected

Navigating complex conversations in the workplace requires a delicate balance of empathy, policy and demonstration of your organisational values, says Paine.

“For me, as an HR professional, I’m guided by many different things in the organisation, such as organisational policy, our organisational culture and our capability framework – are we skilled up in having specific sensitive discussions?

“If somebody isn’t feeling safe in the workplace, it can open the organisation up to future claims, including workers’ compensation or issues like bullying and harassment, with potential productivity and cultural impacts.”

2. Legal considerations

Complex conversations can be somewhat of a legal minefield. A good way to assess if your organisation is prepared in a legal sense is to ask, “What are the organisational policies and procedures around this particular issue?” says Kathryn Dent, Partner, Workplace Relations and Safety at HWL Ebsworth Lawyers and member of AHRI’s IR/ER Advisory Committee.

For example, when navigating political issues, an organisation’s social media policy becomes important as comments can reflect on the organisation and potentially lead to perceptions of its stance on a specific issue.

“In this instance, we’d be dealing with a situation where we might have a whole lot of people, in their personal lives, commenting on social media in a way that may reflect on the organisation and may lead people to conclude that the organisation has a particular view about a specific situation,” says Dent.

“A lack of policy may lead to a lack of guidance for supervisors and managers, and that’s when HR can become bombarded with [questions], managers require a lot more hand holding, and people might start making things up as they go.”

Dent emphasises that even if a policy isn’t contractual, disregarding it may lead to unfair dismissal claims.

“If you’ve got a policy that you haven’t followed with respect to a particular issue, and that’s led to somebody’s dismissal, for example, they may challenge it because of the way you’ve acted.”

Work health and safety obligations are also important to consider, particularly when dealing with mental health and political issues.

“We have a duty to ensure the health and safety of all of our workers, irrespective of their political opinion or their religion.”

She also says it’s smart to get up to speed on the psychosocial code of practice and regulations in your jurisdiction.

“How do you think about psychosocial hazards and identifying them in the context of these challenging environments we’re working in? So the four steps to follow are: identify the hazards, assess them, control them and review them.”

To identify potential hazards, Dent recommends asking questions such as:

  • What are the hazards that employees are being exposed to by these topics?
  • How do we control the risks to their mental health if we don’t address it?
  • Are we inadvertently facilitating a hostile environment?
  • Are we perpetuating a viewpoint that is alienating anyone?
  • Are we inadvertently enabling racial vilification?

As well as ensuring compliance with workplace health and safety legislation, she says it’s important to consider discrimination laws.

“We need to make sure we’re not acting in an adverse manner toward people because of race, religion or any views they hold.”

3. Guiding CEOs in effective communication

Often, complex conversations sit at the C-Suite level, meaning HR needs to take on a coaching role in these instances.

Establishing a strong rapport with CEOs and understanding the challenges they face is an important first step, says Brighton-Hall. 

“As an HR person, it’s important to have a strong relationship with the CEO and be respectful of the fact that their job is demanding,” she says. “People and culture management at scale may be unfamiliar territory for them.” 

According to Brighton-Hall, these conversations might look like:

  • Leading the discussion with open-ended questions 
  • Attentively listening to their concerns 
  • Leveraging these challenges as a segway into relevant employee feedback
  • Creating a plan of action that serves the broader interests of the organisation 

She emphasises the importance of initiating coaching conversations with empathy and openness.

“Starting every conversation with questions like, ‘How’s it going? What’s keeping you up at night?’ allows them to share their own challenges.”

4. Look after your own wellbeing

It’s important to acknowledge that these conversations are hard on both employees and HR, says Paine.

“We address difficult, sensitive situations with a human-centred approach, tailoring our responses based on the needs of everybody involved,” he says.

This can be an overwhelming task, meaning it’s important that HR practising self-care.

“We need to make sure the person is safe, that they’re okay, that we’re caring for them as best as we possibly can. But there’s also a limit to that,” says Brighton-Hall.

“[HR professionals] are well trained to direct employees to good support, but must ensure they don’t overstretch and become everything to everybody.”


Stay up to date with emerging HR and business trends in AHRI’s exclusive webinars,
now available on demand for members


 

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Linda Crawford
Linda Crawford
23 days ago

It’s disappointing that you’ve omitted to call out one of the most meaningful discussions currently being had (or should be had) in Australia, that is violence against women. “At a national level, we’ve seen big topics such as the Voice referendum, racism, LGBTIQA+ rights and, most recently, the Israel/Palestine conflict,” he says.

It would be great to see more focus on how we as HR professionals can bring this conversation into the workplace, I’d also like to see a discussion around navigating the workplace when an employee is found to have committed violence against women.

More on HRM
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.

Tips to manage complex conversations in the workplace


Complex conversations have fast become an essential part of the HR function. Three experts share tips to help facilitate challenging discussions effectively – from legal considerations to guiding leaders.

Amid the many geopolitical and local challenges taking place at the moment – such as the imminent US elections and enduring global conflicts – complex conversations have become an inevitable fixture in workplaces, and it often falls on HR to navigate them while also considering the psychosocial safety of those involved. 

This means HR needs to learn how to handle these conversations effectively and embrace the roles of mediator, educator and advocate for inclusivity and harmony in the workplace.

In an AHRI webinar, which is now available on demand for members, a diverse panel of experts offer guidance to assist HR in preparing for, strategising and leading complex conversations at work.

Common complex conversations 

HR professionals are well-versed in having difficult conversations. In many respects, it’s part and parcel of the job. From keeping employee tensions at bay to supporting managers to deal with underperformance, most HR professionals mastered the art of delivering difficult news early on in their careers.

However, in recent years, as professional and personal boundaries have blurred, the nature of these conversations has become more complex. Below are some common topics cropping up in workplaces all across the country.

  1. Internal dynamics and external stressors

HR discussions are increasingly centred around navigating internal politics amid the transition to hybrid working models, says Mathew Paine FCPHR, Chief People Officer at Australian Financial Complaints Authority and member of AHRI’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Panel.

On top of this, issues such as burnout, work-life balance and flexibility expectations loom large, reflecting broader societal shifts. 

“At a national level, we’ve seen big topics such as the Voice referendum, racism, LGBTIQA+ rights and, most recently, the Israel/Palestine conflict,” he says.

When broaching these topics, it’s important to keep the following in mind:

  • Have a plan – If you’re facilitating the resolution of a disagreement between two employees, for example, consider preparing a few key messages that you want to get across, such as the fact that you respect both sides of the argument, you’re not there to determine who’s right or wrong and then reinforce your company’s values of respecting everyone’s perspectives and experiences.
  • Choose your timing wisely – having a complex conversation when emotions are high is rarely a good idea. Even if people expect you to step in and mediate a challenging situation in the moment, there’s nothing wrong with saying something like, “I’d like us all to take a moment to gather our thoughts. Let’s get together tomorrow morning to discuss this.”
  • Give participants a heads up – Whether you’re having a pre-planned conversation with someone directly or facilitating a conversation between others, make sure to give participants enough notice, so they can make informed decisions about what they might like to say or, if it’s a disciplinary meeting, if they might want to bring in a support person.

Another challenging aspect is that people often demand others to take a position on these issues, says Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR, Founder and CEO of Mwah. (Making Work Absolutely Human).

“But many people are saying, “I don’t want to say anything; I don’t want to have an opinion.” And that becomes quite a sensitive topic in itself because people then say, “Well, then you’re not supporting the side that I believe is right,” so that becomes a difficult one to navigate.”

Make it clear that people are under no obligation to share their personal views in a work context and that staying quiet is their right.

Read HRM’s guide to having difficult conversations for more tips.

  1. Economic realities and organisational changes

The current economic environment presents another layer of complexity for HR, says Brighton-Hall.

“One very difficult conversation that HR is having is about the transformation of organisations [during economically challenging times]… many organisations are using this as an opportunity to cut staff.”

HR professionals are increasingly tasked with managing these conversations, which can have a cumulative impact on HR’s own wellbeing.

When addressing economic or job insecurity, it’s important that HR and managers:

  • Speak transparently – Communicate clearly and concisely about the realities of the situation as it pertains to your business, but do so with empathy at your core.
  • Acknowledge people’s concerns – Don’t try to sweep anything under the rug. If people are concerned about their jobs, or perhaps they’re colleagues’ roles have been made redundant, acknowledge how challenging this might be for them and share your next steps with them.
  • Give employees a voice – During times of uncertainty, people need to feel heard. Consider setting up listening sessions or an ‘ask me anything’ forum where employees can share their concerns and perspectives, and hear from their colleagues.

Read HRM’s guide to talking about job insecurity.

Regardless of the complex conversation you’re having, there are key tips for HR to keep in mind, such as:

1. Ensuring employees feel safe and respected

Navigating complex conversations in the workplace requires a delicate balance of empathy, policy and demonstration of your organisational values, says Paine.

“For me, as an HR professional, I’m guided by many different things in the organisation, such as organisational policy, our organisational culture and our capability framework – are we skilled up in having specific sensitive discussions?

“If somebody isn’t feeling safe in the workplace, it can open the organisation up to future claims, including workers’ compensation or issues like bullying and harassment, with potential productivity and cultural impacts.”

2. Legal considerations

Complex conversations can be somewhat of a legal minefield. A good way to assess if your organisation is prepared in a legal sense is to ask, “What are the organisational policies and procedures around this particular issue?” says Kathryn Dent, Partner, Workplace Relations and Safety at HWL Ebsworth Lawyers and member of AHRI’s IR/ER Advisory Committee.

For example, when navigating political issues, an organisation’s social media policy becomes important as comments can reflect on the organisation and potentially lead to perceptions of its stance on a specific issue.

“In this instance, we’d be dealing with a situation where we might have a whole lot of people, in their personal lives, commenting on social media in a way that may reflect on the organisation and may lead people to conclude that the organisation has a particular view about a specific situation,” says Dent.

“A lack of policy may lead to a lack of guidance for supervisors and managers, and that’s when HR can become bombarded with [questions], managers require a lot more hand holding, and people might start making things up as they go.”

Dent emphasises that even if a policy isn’t contractual, disregarding it may lead to unfair dismissal claims.

“If you’ve got a policy that you haven’t followed with respect to a particular issue, and that’s led to somebody’s dismissal, for example, they may challenge it because of the way you’ve acted.”

Work health and safety obligations are also important to consider, particularly when dealing with mental health and political issues.

“We have a duty to ensure the health and safety of all of our workers, irrespective of their political opinion or their religion.”

She also says it’s smart to get up to speed on the psychosocial code of practice and regulations in your jurisdiction.

“How do you think about psychosocial hazards and identifying them in the context of these challenging environments we’re working in? So the four steps to follow are: identify the hazards, assess them, control them and review them.”

To identify potential hazards, Dent recommends asking questions such as:

  • What are the hazards that employees are being exposed to by these topics?
  • How do we control the risks to their mental health if we don’t address it?
  • Are we inadvertently facilitating a hostile environment?
  • Are we perpetuating a viewpoint that is alienating anyone?
  • Are we inadvertently enabling racial vilification?

As well as ensuring compliance with workplace health and safety legislation, she says it’s important to consider discrimination laws.

“We need to make sure we’re not acting in an adverse manner toward people because of race, religion or any views they hold.”

3. Guiding CEOs in effective communication

Often, complex conversations sit at the C-Suite level, meaning HR needs to take on a coaching role in these instances.

Establishing a strong rapport with CEOs and understanding the challenges they face is an important first step, says Brighton-Hall. 

“As an HR person, it’s important to have a strong relationship with the CEO and be respectful of the fact that their job is demanding,” she says. “People and culture management at scale may be unfamiliar territory for them.” 

According to Brighton-Hall, these conversations might look like:

  • Leading the discussion with open-ended questions 
  • Attentively listening to their concerns 
  • Leveraging these challenges as a segway into relevant employee feedback
  • Creating a plan of action that serves the broader interests of the organisation 

She emphasises the importance of initiating coaching conversations with empathy and openness.

“Starting every conversation with questions like, ‘How’s it going? What’s keeping you up at night?’ allows them to share their own challenges.”

4. Look after your own wellbeing

It’s important to acknowledge that these conversations are hard on both employees and HR, says Paine.

“We address difficult, sensitive situations with a human-centred approach, tailoring our responses based on the needs of everybody involved,” he says.

This can be an overwhelming task, meaning it’s important that HR practising self-care.

“We need to make sure the person is safe, that they’re okay, that we’re caring for them as best as we possibly can. But there’s also a limit to that,” says Brighton-Hall.

“[HR professionals] are well trained to direct employees to good support, but must ensure they don’t overstretch and become everything to everybody.”


Stay up to date with emerging HR and business trends in AHRI’s exclusive webinars,
now available on demand for members


 

Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

2 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Linda Crawford
Linda Crawford
23 days ago

It’s disappointing that you’ve omitted to call out one of the most meaningful discussions currently being had (or should be had) in Australia, that is violence against women. “At a national level, we’ve seen big topics such as the Voice referendum, racism, LGBTIQA+ rights and, most recently, the Israel/Palestine conflict,” he says.

It would be great to see more focus on how we as HR professionals can bring this conversation into the workplace, I’d also like to see a discussion around navigating the workplace when an employee is found to have committed violence against women.

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.
More on HRM