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6 most difficult HR conversations

Having the authority to hire or fire someone, penalise employees over a performance issue, influence their career progression and accept or refuse leave can all sound like a lot of power and authority. But not all that glitters is gold. A seemingly powerful job comes at the cost of having to accept being perceived as the ‘bad guy’.

The Human Resources department is potentially the most hated department in any organisation. HR managers, and others who manage and lead teams whether as managers or entrepreneurs, often have to initiate difficult conversations that employees hate them for. What employees don’t usually consider is how difficult, awkward, and embarrassing those conversations are for the HR managers themselves.

Here are a few conversations that make me cringe (of course the actual list of awkward conversations is much longer than this). If you are stressing over having any one of these conversations anytime soon, just know you are not alone.

Jamal, you smell.

How do you tell someone they smell bad or have bad breath? I have had to do it thrice in the 9 years of my professional career and every time it took a lot of nerve.

I generally try and avoid confrontation and would start with a general group discussion with the team on how one’s personal brand can help with career progression. I add in things like carrying a deodorant, looking their best, and either avoiding foods that cause bad breath or using a breath freshener. But that doesn’t always work and the awkward conversation becomes inevitable.

Sending out an e-mail is a little less awkward but it may be interpreted incorrectly and come off as rude, which is why I would prefer an in-person meeting regardless of how difficult it is.

(Thankfully, in Pakistan, bringing a topic like this up wouldn’t generally have any legal repercussions and embarrassment from the conversation is the only thing you have to worry about.)

Note: Body odour can be a medical problem so it is important to be sensitive and let the employee know that the purpose of speaking to them is to ensure that they are aware of the problem and can take care of it.

Maryam, you’re fired.

Most people recall conversations around firing employees when asked about a difficult or awkward conversations at work. There are, of course, those who enjoy the power and command. For others like myself, looking someone in the eye and telling them they are not good enough or no longer needed is never easy.

Director Marketing and Communications at Media Clicks, Sheikh Waqas says having to fire someone because of their own incompetence requires a heart of steel but even worse would be to have to let someone go because you can no longer afford to keep them.

What can make it even worse? When the employee debates the decision or worse still, apologises with teary eyes and a justification that only makes you feel worse. At this point, your heart wants you to take back your decision but you must exhibit authority and stability.

We will not be providing monetary compensation for your services just yet…

From an employer’s point of view, it makes complete sense to pay only for the value addition you get. Minerva, for instance, cannot afford to offer monetary compensation only to help someone figure out what they want to do in life and learn how to do it. Instead, we offer learning opportunities, the opportunity to meet new people and develop meaningful linkages, develop and exercise soft skills, and access to a panel of amazing mentors. It is a win-win for both.

But while we understand why we do what we do and feel it is justified to offer learning and experience in exchange for services, we also know the person on the other side of the table doesn’t often think the same way. It is this gap that makes the conversation awkward.

I regret to inform you that you were not shortlisted for the job

This one generally happens over e-mail and is relatively less difficult since you have the ‘system’ or ‘algorithm’ to throw the blame on. Regardless of how you phrase it or who you blame, though, what you are essentially telling the candidate is that they are not good enough.

I have dealt with rejected candidates crying over the phone to those who cursed the interviewers or blamed them for bias. These are the kind of conversations no one wants to be a part of. I like to be honest with my feedback; I am certain it helps candidates do better at other interviews. But that only makes the conversation more difficult, especially if the candidate considers it as baseless criticism. I do close the conversation with, ‘There are probably better, more suited opportunities for you out there and I wish you all the best for them.’

I mean it, too.

Please leave your love life outside the office

I don’t have a problem with an employee’s love life as long as it does not interfere with their job role or pose a conflict of interest (particularly if, God forbid, the employee is involved with a client). When that happens or when it starts to create an uncomfortable environment for the rest of the team, it is time to remind the employee of the segregation between their personal and professional life.

The conversation is difficult because you don’t want to sound judgemental or offend or embarrass anyone but at the same time need to be firm and clear about why it is a problem and how you expect it to be resolved.

It would be a good idea to be very certain about the nature of the relationship and its connection with poor performance before taking up a conversation like this. You don’t want to be in a situation where your concerns are disproved or termed presumptuous. That would put you in an even more uncomfortable position.

I have received a harassment complaint against you

This one is an extremely sensitive issue and I have thankfully never had to deal with one but it happens and having this conversation can be extremely important. Depending on the nature of the allegations, and from incidents narrated by friends who came across similar situations, the gravity of these conversations can vary.

Sometimes, at a regular meeting, a polite reminder of harassment policies and the consequences of being involved in a harassment incident can be sufficient to make the offender back off. At other times, sitting the accused down and informing them that their cooperation in an investigation on harassment allegations against them would be appreciated becomes necessary.

Note: Harassment complaints must never be ignored and the accuser should be taken for his or her word. An immediate fair and thorough investigation, however, should be launched before any disciplinary action is taken. How you respond sends a powerful signal about what other employees can expect in similar circumstances. It can help stop harassment at your organisation or encourage it.

Like mentioned earlier, these are just some of the difficult conversations and there are many others such as those regarding salary, poor performance, embezzlement or fraud, or if someone has been watching porn in the office.

Whenever I have had to have a difficult conversation, I remind myself of the words of one of my mentors from my first job. ‘You are not here to win a popularity contest,’ he said. ‘You are here to do your job’. I have made it a point to be honest and timely, yet respectful. At the end of the day what matters most is to not try and avoid having difficult conversations but to be prepared for them.

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