Tips for having difficult conversations in the workplace

But these conversations shouldn’t be approached with a sense of anguish, because they don’t have to end negatively.

A well-constructed and thought-out discussion can often lead to a productive result, with both parties walking away feeling positive and with resolution in sight.

The first step is to deal with the situation straight away. By allowing it to linger, it could become a bigger ‘issue’ than need be. The next step is to spend time developing a careful, considered approach.

A difficult conversation handled insensitively can affect not only a business’s relationship with an individual employee, but also its wider workforce. Once a discussion has commenced, get straight to the point, rather than engaging in unnecessary small talk.

Stick to the facts, rather than relying on opinions or hearsay, and where possible, give the employee examples to back up your comments. Explain how the issue is impacting on the business. Focus on the issue at hand rather than the person.

Keep an open mind, listen to the employee and consider their point of view. There could be a range of facts that haven’t yet come to the surface, which could lead to alternative resolutions.

Some employees may react to difficult conversations with an emotional response, so be prepared for this and consider telling the employee they can bring a support person to the meeting if they want to.

The person holding the conversation should remember to manage their own emotions as well. It’s important to remain calm and objective. The ideal result is to reach agreement on a plan for resolving the matter at hand. Gaining the employee’s  commitment to a plan-of-action significantly increases the chances that it will be successful.

It’s also a good idea to keep a record of the discussion, as well as the decided steps for resolution.

The next step is to actually make sure the actions agreed to are taken. Follow up with the employee to ensure the matter is being resolved and that the plan-of-action is being fulfilled. Keep communication channels open and ensure the employee is  comfortable to speak up if any further issues arise.

When workplace issues are left unresolved, or handled poorly, they can cause considerable harm to staff morale, workplace culture and productivity, possibly resulting in absenteeism and high employee turnover.

However, when difficult conversations are executed quickly and successful outcomes are achieved, it can improve staff engagement and confidence and create a happier, more productive workplace.

Having difficult workplace conversations is the topic of a free course offered through the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Online Learning Centre at

The course has practical tips to help employers develop the skills and confidence to have a difficult conversation in the workplace and minimise disputes.

The Fair Work Ombudsman also assists franchise businesses through the National Franchise Program.

The program has been designed to help franchisors protect their brand by supporting fair and compliant workplaces across their franchise business.

The program provides practical support and advice around employment practices to help improve and create better support systems. Participants will meet with a Fair Work Adviser to discuss the services available, their franchise structure and  business needs. The program is then tailored to best support their business.

Examples of the modules offered include:

• About the FWO: Understand the role of the Fair Work Ombudsman
• Minimum Entitlements: Understand all aspects of employee minimum entitlements and avoid common mistakes
• Recruitment: Work towards best practice recruitment in your workplace
• Flexibility: Improve productivity through a flexible working environment
• Manage Underperformance: Work with employees and managers to prevent and manage underperformance
• Termination and Redundancy: Be confident you are meeting your obligations in termination and redundancy situations.

Participation in the National Franchise Program is both free and voluntary.

The next National Franchise Program intake has limited places still available. For more information please contact

Robert Hortle is the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Director of Small Business Strategy. Robert and his team ensure that the needs of small business are understood and accounted for within the work of the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Contact the Fair Work Ombudsman at:

P: 13 13 94