How to manage support people in a formal meeting

Do you need to conduct a formal meeting with one of your employees? Have you given them 24 hours notice and offered for them to bring a support person?

Let’s discuss who is a support person, what their role is during a meeting and when one is required.

What is a formal meeting?

A formal meeting is a meeting with an employee relating to their employment.  This might include under performance, behavioural matters, and termination meetings. It could also include any meetings in relation to a workplace investigation, regardless of whether they are the complainant, respondent or a witness.

An employees should be permitted to bring a support person to any formal meeting relating to their employment – for your benefit and theirs. 

When notifying an employee about the formal meeting it is best practice to give them some information about the meeting beforehand. This will allow them to advise their support person what the meeting is about and allow them to prepare for the meeting, determine the likely reaction of the employee they are supporting and gather some background information about the concerns being put forward. 

Now that the meeting has been set and the circumstances have been communicated, it is important to understand more about a support person.

Who is a support person?

In simple terms, a support person is someone that an employee can nominate to attend a meeting with them to provide emotional support and reassurance. They could be a work colleague, union representative, lawyer, friend or family member.

An employer should be informed up front who the employee intends to use as a support person, and there will be instances where the employer might want to push back against an employee’s choice of support person. 

It may be appropriate for an employer to push back on a support person if there’s a conflict of interest, if they are involved in any capacity or if they have a personal stake in the outcome. 

What is the role of a support person?

The role of a support person is to act as a (semi) silent, supportive bystander. That means that they can offer advice to the employee throughout the meeting, take notes and request a break. 

A support person is not there to engage with the meeting, advocate for the employee, answer questions, speak on behalf of the employee or disrupt proceedings in any way.

Occasionally a support person will step beyond their boundaries, especially if they have an emotional connection to the employee or have a similar previous experience or are unhappy with the process being followed.  

At the start of a meeting it is best practice to acknowledge the support person and outline the role of the support person, and where the boundaries lie during the meeting. It can also be helpful to make clear to the employee and the support person that they can request a break during the meeting to talk privately or gather their thoughts.

If they overstep the boundaries, remind them of their role, pause or stop the meeting until the support person can participate in an appropriate manner.

Confidentiality and privacy

As well as advising a support person of their role during a formal meeting, it is also important that they are aware that this is a confidential process between the parties at the meeting. This means that they should not discuss the matter with anyone who was not present at the meeting.

They should be made aware that breaching confidentiality could result in further disciplinary action, such as termination.  

When to offer a support person?

There is no harm in having a support person present in a formal meeting. Therefore if your meeting is going to address any concerns around an employee’s behaviour or performance, it is recommended offering the employee to bring a support person.

There are some instances where a support person is not required and generally it is around reasonable management direction or during a performance appraisal where there might be a disagreement around ratings.

In conclusion, if you are in the position of being involved in a formal meeting, be it as the employer or employee, remember that a support person can be recommended and is permitted.  Do you need assistance with running a formal meeting and would like some advice and guidance?  Contact Small Business Society .

The information provided in this document is for your guidance only and is general in nature. It does not constitute as legal advice. It is the responsibility of the individual to seek legal advice where required.


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About Kate Tongue

Kate Tongue is the founding Director of Small Business Society.

She is a qualified and experienced Human Resources professional with more than 10 years of experience across the private and public sectors.

Her particular interest and experience is in managing the employee life cycle, delivering process improvements, and Human Resource strategy.


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