I’ve had an incredible number of responses from people reading the blog and newsletter around our recent theme of Difficult Conversations. 

Two key questions have repeatedly been asked, so I’m going to provide my perspectives on these in in this newsletter:

  1. How do you approach performance conversations when the other person might be suffering with a mental health problem?
  2. How do you have difficult conversations and NOT end up with a bullying or harassment challenge?


1. Mental health and performance conversations

This is a particularly difficult and challenging situation. It’s so much more complex than a physical issue such as broken leg and requires empathy, compassion and clarity. I am not going to attempt to prescribe a step by step process for this, as a short article cannot do it justice. However, I can tell you what has worked for me, and if that is useful then hopefully it’s a good start.

I’ve found there are four important things I must do in preparation for a performance discussion with a staff member who has a disclosed mental health issue or I suspect, based on a change in behaviour or attitude, that something is amiss:

  1. Enlist the help of HR - performance or behaviour discussions are extremely difficult to do well in this situation without expert assistance. If I don’t have access to HR people, I'll seek external guidance (see additional reading below).
  2. Prepare with extreme thoroughness, focus on one specific behaviour, use facts and data and avoid anecdotal evidence.
  3. Acknowledge my role isn’t to “fix” their health issue, it is to ensure they can remain a valuable and valued team member during a challenging time.
  4. Familiarise myself with the companies Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if one exists. If it doesn’t, ask HR what kind of help they can provide.

When I have the conversation, I work really hard to focus on the behaviour or performance. I avoid going too deep into the health issue itself.  Whilst it’s important that I treat the person as a whole person, it’s not my role to solve, fix or cure health issues, mental or otherwise.

It IS my role to ensure they feel respected and valued as part of my team.

* Disclaimer: the above does not contain nor can be construed to contain advice. It is recommended that you seek the help of health professionals.

Additional reading

There is a significant amount of information available online for effective management of people with mental health issues in the workplace. The following sites are recommended reading:






2. Avoid the bullying / harassment trap

As we saw in the newsletter “Expert at the difficult” a poorly executed performance review or behavioural correction conversation can create the opposite response to what was intended or hoped for. At one end of the scale the person simply ignores what you say and continues on their own merry way.

At the other end of this spectrum the person feels bullied or harassed, exposing you and your organisation to significant risk.

In my experience, there are several things we need to be wary of:

1. Too personal: The conversation moves from the behaviour/performance to the person themself, and calls for the person to change something inherent about their personality. For example:  A salesperson at a retail organisation I was recently working with was “performance managed” for not being “outgoing enough”.

Whether or not someone is outgoing isn’t something that can be altered or changed through policy, it inherently about them, as a person. And it ended badly for both the employee and the company. If it was focused on behaviour and substantiated with data (e.g. 25% of the time you don’t greet shoppers with our standard greeting and agreed body language) it could easily have been different.

2. Too new: It’s the first time the person has heard about the issue – there’s an old saying with performance discussions “Don’t bring anything new up”.

You must do the hard work of addressing behaviour through the intervening period. This conversation should focus on “progress” rather than “adjustment”.

3. Unfocused:  being ill-prepared leads to rambling discussions that can easily delve into an area of concern that you hadn't wanted to raise. All the other person hears is negativity and feels under attack.

I'll keep saying it, preparation is everything. Careful planning of both the issue and how you intend to address it during the meeting reduces your risk of meandering off topic and enables you to stay on track and quickly move to the positive actions that can be made.

4. Different perceptions after the event: sometimes there will be a different sense of what was agreed, and how (and in what spirit) the conversation played out. The last thing you want to be relying on for evidence is your memory.

Retain your meeting plan and the notes you took during the meeting. After the meeting type these up and give them to the person so that you both have a written record. Ask them if there is anything missing or different about their recollection of events. Then file this information safely. Both you and the person must have clarity around the outcomes and feel that the conversation was conducted with fairness and transparency.

5. Too much: You raise too many issues at one time– a litany of things they need to work on is demoralising and often provokes a fight or flight response by the other person.

Concentrate your efforts, if you can, on one issue at a time. 

6. Combatative: Either you, or they or both of you are spoiling for a fight.  It could be a simmering tension over something completely unrelated. This is a sure-fire way to end up with a complaint.

Put your personal feelings aside and concentrate on respecting the other person's views. If you have a history of "stormy weather" with each other, be clear about the state of your relationship at the beginning, let them know this is about performance and behaviour. Treat them with respect and let them know you expect them to reciprocate.

7. Complicating factors: There may be an overlap with an existing health issue, an office relationship or another factor that muddies the waters.

See above. This is not the time and place to raise such issues. If the other person raises it, acknowledge that it could be/is a complicating factor but stay focussed and stay on plan.

8. Dissonance: There is difference between what you say and what you do. It's problematic if you attempt to correct a behaviour that you yourself struggle with. 

Show selective vulnerability - indicate that you too have difficulty with this issue if this is the case. Let them clearly understand that is something you are aware of and are working with your superior to resolve. 


Additional Information

The following resources provide useful guidance: