Difficult Conversations – Dealing with awkward personal issues


What makes a conversation difficult?

Each conversation is unique, but there are often common reasons why they are difficult.  These common reasons include:

  • Human nature – I always try to avoid conflict
  • Embarrassment – I don’t like awkward situations
  • It might all go wrong – I could end up with a g
    rievance or worse
  • It might become emotional – I can’t deal with  tears
  • It will take too long – Isn’t it HR or someone else’s job anyway?

What should I do if the employee raises embarrassing or awkward personal issues?

Sometimes you may start a difficult conversation with an employee about one issue and a whole host of other issues surface.  This happens most commonly  in a capability or disciplinary conversation.

Personal issues may be raised in mitigation of the employee’s poor performance.

Personal issues can be very wide ranging, from alcoholism to divorce, from drug dependency to cross dressing. How should you as a manager react if something awkward, embarrassing or uncomfortable is raised in the difficult conversation?

Stay calm, listen to what the employee is saying and acknowledge that you have heard what they have said.  You do not need to agree with what the employee is saying but you  do need to listen in case what they are saying is relevant to matters discussed.

Being aware of your equality responsibilites can be helpful as sometimes the embarrasing issue may be an indicator of an underlying protected characteristic.

Whatever is raised you need to give it due consideration in determine whether it is relevant to the matter in hand.  Occasionally personal issues are raised as a smoke screen to allow the employee to aviod facing up to the fact that they are not meeting expectations.

More often than not, these personal issues are relevant.  Where an issue affects their performance at work you need to consider it.  It may  may not influence your decision but you need to include it in your deliberations

Always ensure that you:

  • Document the meeting as soon as it is over
  • Ideally have a witness present at the meeting to be an independent pair of eyes observing proceedings
  • Prepare well.  Have all the information you need to hand, consider the likely responses you will encounter and how you might react.
  • Be clear on the outcome that you want to achieve from the meeting.  This will enable you to be better able to manage your reaction to events as they unfold

If you would like to know

  • What can go wrong?
  • How you ensure your message is heard and accepted?
  • How you can reduce the risk of things going wrong?

Read our Difficult conversations Blog


Deal with matters as they arise, don’t leave until they become a problem

Approach issues on an informal basis first

Prepare well, gather evidence, articulate key points, devise questions & responses

Ensure you document the conversation in case matters are not concluded

Be prepared to adjourn and continue the conversation at another time, place or with expert help alongside you

Be prepared for the unexpected!