Sensible conversations as an HR strategy

Are you overly concerned about process? It’s understandable in many cases. If you’re working in a big organisation then it’s important to be consistent and the more discretion involved in handling employee issues, the harder it can be to achieve that.

The other thing many people are concerned about – HR professionals and managers alike – is saying the wrong thing, particularly when it comes to the more sensitive employment issues we come across. Again, it can be understandable. Perhaps the employee in question has a history of reacting badly to things. Maybe there have been grievances and/or legal claims making the manager a bit ‘gun-shy’.

But being panicky about those things or tying yourself in knots trying to avoid confrontation can lead to problems either just not getting resolved, or in things getting worse and worse through not being addressed, prolonging stress for people and leading to stagnation as no progress is made.

I’m a huge fan of the ‘sensible conversation’ when it comes to handling employee situations. It can be so powerful in reducing angst, dealing with things much more promptly, and getting a satisfactory result for all concerned.

An example I’ve come across several times is handling an employee’s return from maternity leave. In one particular case the business had changed and there simply wasn’t enough work of the type the employee had been doing before her maternity leave.

The client was worried about the possibility of a discrimination claim and about the risks of going through a potential redundancy process, or trying to change terms and conditions of someone on maternity leave. Whilst all those things are of course concerns to be aware of, that doesn’t necessarily mean a formal process is automatically necessary.

It’s obviously common for women on maternity leave to want to return on reduced hours or another flexible arrangement, so before leaping in with a very formal process to try and change things, I suggested that the client just have a conversation with the employee and find out what her thoughts were about returning and what she was looking for. A simple exploratory conversation with no pressure is perfectly fine. In this case the employee didn’t want to return full time anyway, so with a sensible conversation the client and employee were able to come to an arrangement that suited them both. No angst and no need for a stressful formal process.

This approach can work in any organisation but I think it is particularly effective in small businesses where a formal process can feel particularly onerous, and where relationships are usually such that an honest chat ‘fits’ the culture and is more doable without risking inconsistency problems because of managers in different areas of the business handling things different ways – if everyone is managed by one person or a close group who talk to each other, inconsistency is much less likely.

Encouraging and supporting managers and business owners to have sensible conversations at an early stage, and giving them the advice they need to do so safely, is really important to how we work and is a key part of the ‘enabling’ ethos we use when working with small business clients.


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