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It's time to talk; Acas launches new guidance

Thursday 24 May 2012

Acas, the workplace relations experts, have launched new guidance to help managers have difficult conversations in the workplace.

As a manager or supervisor,being able to talk about sensitive and emotive issues is an important part of the job but it's also one of the toughest. If handled badly, these conversations - about performance, conduct or personal matters - can damage team dynamics, lower morale and badly effect levels of attendance and performance. In difficult economic circumstances, when your resources are already stretched, is this outcome really an option?

A survey by CEDR found that 63% of managers and employees questioned felt their organisation was not prepared to deal with challenging conversations. Acas' own experience tells us that no matter how big or small the problem it is often made a lot worse by the mishandling of these critical one-to-one interactions.

Adrian Wakeling, Acas Senior Guidance Editor said:

"Many line managers go into difficult conversations with very good intentions but often make the mistake of prolonging or intensifying the problem rather than restricting or resolving it.

Knowing when to expand a conversation - by seeking clarification and gaining understanding - and when to restrict it - in terms of deciding what happens next - can often only be learned through experience or the right training."

Acas top tips

Having one-to-one conversations about personal medical or emotional issues requires a great deal of sensitivity and empathy. It also involves trying to stay in control of your emotions as well as the situation. Follow this checklist:

  • Set the right tone:
    • Explain the purpose of the meeting
    • Adopt a calm and professional manner
    • Reassure the employee about confidentiality
    • Focus on the issue not the person
  • State the issues and give evidence:
    • Tell them about the problem and give examples
    • Explain how the problem is affecting the individual and the team
    • Is the problem new or have you spoken about it before - surprises are harder to handle!
  • Ask for an explanation:
    • Listen to what the employee is saying and try to recognise any underlying causes of unhappiness or stress
    • Keep an open mind and don't jump to conclusions
    • Introduce your questions and explore the issues together
    • Avoid emotive language or getting diverted from the issue
  • Agree a way forward:
    • Ask the employee for proposals to resolve the problem
    • Discuss the options
    • Make a decision - you are in charge!
    • Arrange a follow-up meeting if necessary
    • Monitor and feedback on progress and give support where needed
    • Document any agreement and give a copy to the employee.

View the new advice booklet 'Challenging conversations and how to manage them' at

The Acas helpline is also a valuable resource for employers and managers who want advice on employment law and good practice - 08457 47 47 47.

Acas has training for managers wanting to develop their skills

Notes for editors

  1. Acas' aim is to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It provides information, advice, training and a range of services working with employers and employees to prevent or resolve problems and improve performance. Acas is an independent and impartial statutory body governed by a council made up of members from business, trade unions, academia and the law.
  2. Acas has also published guidance on managing mental health issues in the workplace. Mental health: we need to talk is available on the Acas website
  3. CEDR Survey November 2010

For media enquiries contact Lou Owen, Media and Marketing Officer, on 020 7210 3920.