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How CEOs can manage challenging conversations with colleagues

By Mark O’Donnell, employment law adviser, WorkNest

Managing challenging conversations with senior management can require a highly considered approach – one which takes into account both the complexities of the issue at hand and the broader organisational impact. Additionally, senior staff members will often have valuable insights to impart, and their perspective should be considered both during these conversations and when making any substantive decisions in relation to their employment. 

Here are some key points that CEOs should consider when confronted with these challenging situations.

Performance issues

Imagine a scenario where a senior manager consistently fails to meet performance targets.

The first step is to initiate a formal performance review process to understand the reasons behind their underperformance. This involves acting in accordance with the organisation’s capability policy and setting clear, measurable objectives and timelines for improvement. It’s crucial to provide the necessary resources and support to the senior manager, which might include additional training or mentoring.

Throughout this process, regularly review the manager’s progress and document all communications and actions taken. This ensures transparency and accountability while providing a clear framework for improvement. By following this approach, CEOs can address performance issues constructively, aiming for a positive outcome for both the individual and the organisation.

Conduct issues

In situations where a senior manager displays inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying or harassment, CEOs must act swiftly and decisively to address the issue.

The first step is to immediately investigate the allegations, following the organisation’s disciplinary procedure to ensure a thorough, confidential, and fair process. This involves gathering all relevant information, interviewing witnesses, and documenting the findings carefully.

If the allegations are substantiated, take appropriate action. Depending on the severity of the offence in question, this could range from formal warnings to termination of employment. Throughout the process, it is essential to maintain confidentiality to protect the privacy of all parties involved and uphold the integrity of the investigation.

Addressing inappropriate behaviour promptly and fairly ensures CEOs maintain a respectful and safe work environment for all employees.

Lack of alignment with the charity’s vision

It’s not uncommon for a senior manager to publicly disagree with or undermine the organisation’s strategy.

In such cases, start by having a conversation with the senior manager to better understand their perspective. Foster an open dialogue with the aim of establishing their specific concerns and why they have chosen to communicate them in the manner they have. It’s important to approach this conversation with an open mind, showing a willingness to listen and consider their viewpoint.

Once the concerns are fully understood, you can then make an informed judgment based on a comprehensive analysis of the circumstances. This might involve addressing any valid points raised by the senior manager and integrating constructive feedback into the organisation’s strategy. Alternatively, it may require reinforcing the rationale behind the existing strategy and explaining why it remains the best course of action.

By engaging in open communication and thoroughly evaluating the situation, CEOs can address senior managers’ concerns while ensuring alignment and support for the charity’s strategic direction.

Personal issues affecting performance

You may also encounter a scenario where a senior manager’s personal issues are impacting their performance at work. This sensitive situation requires a compassionate yet practical approach to support the employee while safeguarding the organisation’s interests.

Begin by having a private conversation with the senior manager to understand the nature of their personal challenges and determine how the organisation can provide assistance. Depending on the situation, options such as taking annual leave, temporarily reducing their working hours, or adjusting their duties may be appropriate.

In such cases, it is highly beneficial to have access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or similar service, which can offer professional support and resources to help the employee manage their personal issues effectively.

Throughout this process, closely monitor the situation to ensure that the manager’s personal problems do not adversely affect the organisation. Regular check-ins can help assess the employee’s progress and determine if additional support or adjustments are needed.

By offering appropriate assistance and maintaining oversight, CEOs can help senior managers navigate their personal difficulties while minimising the impact on their work performance and organisation as a whole.

Three top tips for managing challenging senior staff

  1. Maintain thorough records of all incidents, communications, and actions taken. This is crucial for addressing both performance and behavioural issues, especially if a dismissal becomes necessary.
  2. Handle situations discreetly to protect the charity’s reputation.
  3. Consider the impact of the senior manager’s behaviour on both internal morale and external stakeholders.

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