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Driving difficult workplace conversations the right way

Let’s dive into a challenging topic that doesn’t get talked about enough  how to conduct those difficult workplace conversations so they are effective, productive and empathetic to the needs of everyone.

I rarely watch television. Hell, with a business and an alpaca farm to run, two small children and ultra marathoning, I usually don’t have time to have a cup of tea – not a warm one anyway.

But this week I was watching the end of ‘The Project’ on Channel 10 and I saw a story unfold about the suspension of former NRL player, Hazem El Masri and how this affected him, his wife, his family and his community.

Now, there is a huge history behind why this story was so interesting to the media and to all of us. Namely, El Masri was a domestic violence ambassador, charged with and later found innocent of domestic violence.

As a business manager and a HR advisor, what peaked my interest in this case, was the way the NRL dealt with El Masri’s suspension as an ambassador and his ultimate exit from the organisation.

It led me to shake my head, reach for my wine and wonder, yet again, why it is so damn hard to have difficult conversations with people at work.

How did the NRL handle El Masri’s difficult workplace conversations?

According to El Masri, he was told he was “having a break”, but that break became longer-and-longer and left even his wife asking, “What’s going on here ?”.

Eventually the former league player was dumped.

Even after he had been cleared formally of any charges and wrong doing, he heard nothing from the NRL, though few could have missed his exclusion from the line up of 46 game ambassadors selected for the following season.

Like most people in his situation, El Masri was imply seeking closure.

Rather than handle those difficult workplace conversations with the grace and wisdom they required, it seemed the NRL largely let the media do the talking for it.


The NRL is not alone in avoiding tough talks


Difficult workplace conversations may solve problems, but they’re often a no-pain, no-gain situation.

An article I read recently suggests, “To succeed at difficult conversations, managers need the tongue of a gifted narrator, the mind of a wise psychologist and a heart of a gutsy lion tamer.”

While this was an interesting article, I honestly don’t think it is that hard to have one of these crucial conversations and actually get it right.

It’s by no means pleasant and no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, but avoiding ‘the talk’ entirely does not make the situation any easier or less awkward.

The thing is, the NRL is not the only big company getting this wrong. Across industry, business size and leader experience, I have seen so many companies deliver poorly on this front, or rather, refrain from delivering at all.

One CEO I worked with offered an executive a new position, with salary approximately 60% of the one the employee was on currently. Obviously the employee left.

This employee wasn’t doing anything inherently wrong; he just wasn’t a great performer in the eyes of this CEO.

The employee spent numerous hours in my office as an HR Director, pondering “What have I done?”, “Why doesn’t he like me ?”, “What can I do differently?”.

In reality, it wasn’t this employee that needed to change; the CEO needed to pull up his big boy pants and have an honest conversation.

It’s not easy, and here’s a newsflash   it’s not meant to be! Perhaps this employee might have reacted badly or with tears, but the best thing for the organisation, the employee and the CEO is to have that conversation!

In another example, I had a CEO tell a direct report in the presence of others and over email, “We can’t be without you”, “You are the CEO in practice”, “I need you” etc.

I don’t know what was happening in this CEO’s head, but in reality, the employee was actually being ousted by the board (which the CEO knew ), and they brought in a third party to orchestrate the discussion and deal to get this guy to leave.

Again, the employee was left wondering, “Hang on, you just told me, I was doing well !”, “What did I do?” and yet again, it’s the CEO with the issue and the long list of things they could do differently.

Orchestrating around difficult workplace conversations

Did you know, there is a coaching discipline now known as ‘coaching an employee out’?

Really! Are we are doing this now? 

We’re outsourcing the conversation !? 

We will just add the cost of these ‘coaches’ to the sums of money thrown at people to leave, in return for the ‘Deed of Release’ or ‘Confidentiality Agreements’ to be signed, shall we? 

Seems like an expensive circus to avoid a difficult workplace conversation, to me.

If I had a dollar for every orchestrated ‘redundancy I have been asked to conjure up, I would be writing this from a  private island somewhere.

So many conversations around how can you manage so-and-so or this demographic better? How can you get so-and-so to leave?

I know, here’s an idea!

How about have the conversation, for starters! Honestly, over coffee, without formality to start with, human to human!

Radical, right?

Learning from every experience


El Masri now says he wouldn’t change anything about his experience.

He feels it has ultimately made him a better person.

In fact, many people after being exited badly from organisations find an enormous weight lifted after the dust has settled and they have moved on.

Usually, they also have some cash in hand!

Despite El Masri’s response, having the conversation is still 100% the right way to go.

Avoiding it can not only cause risks to yourself and your company, but can also significantly impact the mental health of the person in the firing line (pun a happy coincidence!).

Come on people, time to front up and own the difficult workplace conversations for the benefit of everyone concerned.

Need some help? Give me a call, if you buy me a coffee, I’ll help you size up some big boy or big girl pants! No further invoice pending…