Report on the “Honest Conversation in the Workplace” business matters lunchtime talk given by David Craigie and Marianne Gilhooly on 24 July 2013.
business matters is very grateful to CMS Cameron McKenna who hosted the event and provided refreshments for those attending.
To view the PowerPoint presentations which accompanied the talk and listen to recordings of the talks, use the icons at the foot of the page.
David highlighted that this talk followed on from the previous lunchtime talk given by Brent Haywood on Honest Business – Building a Values Culture, focusing on the topic of Honest Conversation and indicated that today’s talk would be in two parts – he would look at the topic from the viewpoint of the occupational psychologist and the “company”, looking at wellbeing, productivity and employee engagement, while Marianne would look at it from the viewpoint of the employee, and highlight some pointers with regard to employment law.
David started by asking if anyone had heard of the concept of “Psychological Contract” (PC) – one person in the audience had. In defining it, David highlighted that it is much more than the normal written contract and consists of expectations which employees have of their employer and vice versa. It is important because keeping this contract can greatly enhance employee engagement and commitment; David described it in terms of citizenship rather than mere residence; while breaching the PC can have significant negative impact. The key point is that you need to understand what an employee’s expectations are and this is where honest conversations come in.
He asked us to think about times when we had felt “let down” by communication processes – told something late in the day, told by inappropriate means (perhaps second hand or by email rather than face to face) or even not told at all – these are instances of people not coming through on the PC. This can cause employee engagement to dip. On the other hand, when the contract is upheld, this results in greater employee commitment and improved job satisfaction. Breaching the contract drives both of these down and, in many instances, can lead to actual incurred costs for the recruitment and training of staff to replace those who may have left as a result of this.
David talked about Organisational Citizenship Behaviours – when people go “above and beyond” to help the organisation and indeed their colleagues – staying late to assist in finishing a report with a colleague rather than clock watching is just one example. These behaviours are much more likely to be exhibited when the PC is being upheld and thriving. People care – like being part of a family. Honest conversation can help.
There is a real hard financial benefit in this as well. Good employee engagement and participation often reduces absence and David quoted statistics that there is an average of £600 per employee per year spent by companies in managing absence. The main cause of long term absence and, indeed, short term absence is stress – how do we manage this?
Reputation of a business is also vital – if an employee is stressed and dissatisfied then that will be apparent and damaging to the company. In this era of social media such comments can spread far and wide very quickly – David cited an example from the previous day of a Facebook friend commenting adversely on the poor customer service performance of an (unnamed) mobile phone company; he estimated that within the space of an hour almost 500 people would hear about this. Reputations matter, employee engagement helps these, honest conversation helps employee engagement.
David quickly covered stress factors:
These have been addressed in previous talks which are available on the business matters website. He highlighted that honest conversation could help in each of the six factors shown; especially, perhaps, the stressor of change; people like to know what is happening so that they can plan and adapt – leaving communication to the last minute or not being open and honest can lead to real problems.
He moved on to highlight that, with all the above in mind, we have to be aware that honesty can, if displayed and used wrongly, not have the desired positive effects. He recalled an example from his family when a relative was apt to express honest opinions at all times and in all places and he and his family sometimes had to take precautions so that these comments were not heard and did not cause offence. It is worth noting that honest conversations require wisdom and discernment, knowing…
- What to say
- When to say it
- How to say it
- If to say it at all
Not all honesty is invited and so care and thought are required.
David ran through two helpful scenarios which illustrated the positives/negatives of different communication responses to difficult situations.
He concluded his part of the talk as follows:
- Honest conversations can help improve employee well-being (and therefore productivity and reduce absence).
- They also allow for growth, personal development, shared solution seeking and foster a culture of trust and respect.
- Honesty needs wisdom and discernment.
David then handed over to Marianne for the second part of the presentation.
Marianne introduced herself and indicated that while, as an employment lawyer, she sometimes wished that people did not say anything, there was a clear place for honest conversation in improving the employee’s lot.
Is honest conversation achievable? She indicated that she hoped to address this by looking at three areas:
- Honesty with colleagues
- Honesty with managers
- Honesty with yourself
Marianne set the topic in context by highlighting the uncertainties and pressures of the workplace today. She believes that they could be helped by honest conversation. Without, in Marianne’s words, “wishing to get in to a battle of the sexes” she highlighted that generally there is a difference between men and women in their willingness to be open and honest within their workplace about their own situations.
Being open and honest with colleagues – the following benefits and factors are relevant:
- Build good relationships at work
- Understand how other people work
- Praise people for work they have done well
- Relaying negative feedback
- Be careful of dignity at work policies
- Beware of bullying
Marianne expanded each of these points and referred back to the talk on Motivation given by Marjory Morrow to highlight certain aspects to be aware of.
Moving on to honest conversation with managers, Marianne covered the following:
- They can’t help you if you don’t let them know what’s wrong
- Be honest about your ability/understanding/workload
- Ask for assistance when needed
She described HR in terms which she had heard from a recent client – as a firefighting resource putting out small fires before they grow and become real problems. Address problems early so that they don’t smoulder on for too long.
Establishing an open and honest relationship with your manager builds trust and can increase job satisfaction and enjoyment.
Looking at honesty with yourself:
- Need training – ASK
- Want to have opportunities – ASK
- Show your value to your employers
It can often help to frame requests for training in the context of the benefit to the organisation, also to demonstrate your willingness to take opportunities and thus your worth to the organisation.
Marianne summarised the benefits of honesty on:
- Impact of honesty on working culture
- Impact of honesty on productivity
- Impact of honesty on engagement
Honesty leads to a happier, more productive workforce – not sweating the small stuff.
A key comment came from Marianne at the end of the talk in the context of her involvement as an employment lawyer in tribunal proceedings – “If someone had just had an honest conversation at the outset then things might not have reached the point that they did”
A Question and Answer time followed the talks during which the following significant points were made by members of the audience and the speakers:
- Conversation is a two-way process
- Sometimes policies can be a barrier to honest conversation
- Nowadays we use the term HR rather than Personnel – we need to remember that people are people – not just a resource
- We must strive to overcome any culture of fear so that honest conversation and its benefits can thrive