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Hard conversations at work

Two men talking at a construction site

Many issues at work can be talked out. Still, the thought of approaching your boss or confronting a co-worker can be stressful. We’ve got tips for dealing with this.

What you should know

Consider first whether an honest conversation makes sense. Sometimes informal steps aren’t appropriate. Especially if there are issues of discrimination or other power imbalances at play.

You might prefer writing a letter or making a formal complaint. (We’ve got tips on those as well.) It’s up to you. Start with whatever approach suits you best.

It can help to talk the issue out first with friends, colleagues, or your union representative (if you’re in a union). They may have been through this before, and have wise counsel.

And you may want support if you later decide to write a letter or make a formal complaint. It’s a good idea to take notes of who you talked with, when, about what.

Consider asking a co-worker to join you when you talk to your boss. They can provide moral support. And they can be the note-taker, freeing you up to be fully in the conversation.

If you do decide to bring someone along, make sure you get your employer’s permission in advance. Surprises are risky.

An employer doesn’t have grounds to fire you for raising a workplace issue, making a request, or bringing a complaint. If you get fired for raising a discrimation, harassment, or workplace safety issue, there are laws in place to help you.

But at any time, as long as they give you enough advance notice or severance pay, an employer can end your employment without cause.

What’s enough notice depends on what’s written in your employment contract — or the minimum you’re entitled to by law. (This is usually based on how long you’ve worked somewhere.)

Raising a concern or making a request shouldn’t put your job in jeopardy. Unfortunately, some bosses are short-tempered and don’t react well to requests.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for that raise or promotion. But it does mean you should be strategic about how you ask, and when.

Have the conversation

There are a handful of smart steps to take in “the conversation” with your boss.

Step 1. Set a time

Step 2. Prepare

Step 3. Practice

Step 4. Have the talk

Step 5. Take notes

Step 6. Follow up

Step 1. Set a time

If you’ve just been given bad news, or feel you’ve been wronged, resist the urge to make demands right away. You’ll have a better chance of getting something when you’re calm and prepared. Give yourself a day or two to collect your thoughts and composure.

Then set up a time to meet. Re-confirm the day before.

Step 2. Prepare

Treat this like you’re campaigning for a big election. Your speech needs to be ready to go.

So first: brainstorm. Write down what you’re unhappy about and what you want to achieve. If there was a specific incident, make note of the date and place that it happened, and how it made you feel.

List the six or seven main points you want to make. Then cross out half of them. This can highlight what’s most important to you, and help you remember what you want to say.

Think hard about the outcome you want. How do you hope your employer responds? Put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself: What would I do if I were them?

Gather supporting documents. These could include any emails or letters that relate to the issue, your paystubs (if part of your pay was missing, for example), or your written employment contract (if you have one).

Employers aren’t mind readers. If you can make concrete suggestions, you’ll give your employer something to work with. Consider asking for more than what you want: you’re more likely to get at least part of the solution you’re after.

Step 3. Practice

It doesn’t have to be in front of a mirror, but rehearsing is important. In addition to knowing your top three talking points cold, here are some tips.

  • Practice good body language. Make eye contact. Don’t slouch. Project confidence.

  • Listen and clarify. What I hear you saying is…

  • Frame it. Say I need flexibility rather than You haven’t given me flexibility.

  • Qualify and soften. Don’t say always or never. Use perhaps or maybe.

  • Take their temperature. How is this sitting with you?

Step 4. Have the talk

Here’s a template you might follow for the actual conversation.

  • Explain what the problem is. For example, I’m concerned about the new work schedule.

  • Explain briefly the impact on you. For example, With so many early morning shifts, it’s challenging for me to get my kids to school.

  • Stick to the facts. For example, The school’s before- and after-school program is full and has a year-long waitlist.

  • Suggest one or more solutions. For example, Perhaps I could have the occasional morning shift, and more afternoon shifts.

  • Ask for a response by a certain date. For example, Can you please let me know by (X date) when you’ve made your decision.

Step 5. Take notes

After the conversation, make notes of what you both said and the date and time you spoke. Be sure to describe the outcome.

You may feel like you didn’t quite get your point across, like you forgot to say something important. That feeling is normal. Remember, having the courage to have the conversation is a win on its own.

Step 6. Follow up

Wait a day or two, then consider emailing them a summary of the conversation. Thank them for taking the time to discuss this. List the main points covered and the requested response deadline.

Be brief and to the point. If the issue doesn’t get resolved, this record of the discussion may be helpful down the road.

Who can help

As a worker, there are agencies you can reach out to with questions about your rights.

BC government logo, for use on cards such as Employment Standards Branch
Employment Standards Branch
The government office that deals with complaints against employers in BC.
Call 1-800-663-3316Visit website
Employment and Social Development Canada logo
Employment and Social Development Canada
They can help if you work in a federally-regulated industry.
Call 1-800-641-4049Visit website
WorkSafeBC logo
Can help if you want to report an unsafe workplace
Call 1-888-621-7233Visit website
BC Human Rights Tribunal logo
BC Human Rights Tribunal
Deals with discrimination complaints under BC law.
Call 1-888-440-8844Visit website

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in March 2020
  • Time to read: 4 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Richard Johnson, Ascent Employment Law and Jonas McKay, HHBG Lawyers

Richard Johnson, Ascent Employment Law
Jonas McKay, HHBG Lawyers

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This information from People’s Law School explains in a general way the law that applies in British Columbia, Canada. The information is not intended as legal advice. See our disclaimer.


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