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Handling difficult grievance and disciplinary conversations

Employment Law & HR

Difficult conversations are a fact of life in any workplace. They can involve delivering difficult feedback or discussing behavioural issues, so are often important to an organisation’s overall performance. As a result, managers have to accept responsibility and develop the skills necessary to deal with difficult workplace conversations.

Meetings regarding grievances and disciplinary cases are two of the more common difficult conversations managers may have to have with employees. The best way for managers to deal with these types of conversations is to plan, familiarise themselves with relevant policy and have confidence in their own skills.


Acknowledge problems

Some issues can be prevented before they get out of control and require further action. If you spot the warning signs of a conflict between employees or think that something might be wrong, a quiet word can diffuse a situation.


With a grievance or disciplinary situation it’s best to be direct with employees. Trying to ‘sugar coat’ a problem with compliments or subtlety will only lead to the message becoming muddled, so don’t hesitate to be honest about what you need an employee to do.


Managers should maintain regular contact with employees and their team. If a manager is seen as being approachable, then people are far more likely to come to them to discuss an issue when it arises.


Establish the facts

If a grievance or disciplinary case escalates to a formal stage, then managers will have to be control. They can do this by arming themselves with the facts. What aspect of the employee’s conduct has been unacceptable? Have they breached any particular policy?


For example, if attendance is the issue, there should be an accurate record of the employee’s timekeeping. If they’ve already been spoken to about it through regular feedback, then they have already been given the chance to improve and disciplinary action shouldn’t come as a surprise.


An investigator should draft a plan. This should include timescale, and the sources of evidence that will collect. Written statistics and records are best as they are irrefutable, but witness statements, CCTV and emails are important sources that can reveal the bigger picture.


Follow your policies and procedures

Your organisation’s policies and procedures on discipline and grievances should outline the action you need to take. For example, if your business has a trigger point for sickness absence levels, then you need to know what it is and act accordingly.


The policy will outline the process you need to follow and inform the appropriate action or outcome, such as setting new targets and improvements to be reviewed within a realistic timescale.


Before holding a conversation with the employee in question, establish which policies and procedures their behaviour relates to and how the policy has been breached. If the employee has been made aware of policies and where to find them, it will be more difficult for them to justify any allegations as acceptable.


Soft skills

Many of the skills needed when dealing with people are referred to as ‘soft’ skills, especially when it comes to discussing potentially sensitive subjects. Active listening and questioning techniques can be practiced and developed through roleplaying and planning.


Different questioning techniques will need to be used throughout the conversation, such as open questions to encourage discussion, probing questions to find out the appropriate information and closed questions to check facts.


Active listening shows that you believe the employee’s opinion and point of view as important and strengthens your working relationship with them. It involves non-verbal cues such as body language, as well as the tone of voice you use.


Even if you believe the employee is guilty of misconduct, it’s important to let them have their say and act fairly. Don’t speak in an adversarial manner – remember, you’re there to establish the facts and evaluate them against written policies.


Stay in control

As the manager, it’s up to you and not the employee as to how the meeting progresses. It’s human nature to want to liked, and sometimes you may have a friendly relationship with the employee. However, it’s vital to remember to focus on the evidence at hand and remain professional.


Prior to the meeting, plan the structure of the meeting and decide how you want the conversation to proceed. Decide which questions you’d like to ask, who will be present, and which evidence you want to use.


If an employee becomes emotional or angry it’s important for you to remain calm. Staying in control doesn’t mean interrogating an employee. Lead the conversation by following your plan, asking open questions and having your evidence ready and at hand. Let the employee tell their side of the story, but not dominate the conversation. Use the appropriate soft skills to agree a way forward at the conclusion of the meeting.


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