Tips on Having Difficult Conversations with Employees

By:  Kim Adamson

Having a difficult conversation with an employee can be challenging, uncomfortable, and sometimes stressful. Still, it is usually necessary for the success of the employee, the team, and the organization.  Some reasons for having a difficult conversation with an employee may be related to:

  • Violation of company policies
  • Poor performance
  • Time and attendance
  • Unprofessional behavior
  • Office conflicts or disagreements between coworkers
  • Poor hygiene
  • Termination or layoff

Communication is crucial for managers or HR professionals when having difficult conversations with employees.  Understanding the facts and developing a plan for effectively addressing issues related to an employee’s performance, unacceptable behavior, or other sensitive topics is essential.  It is critical to ensure the communication is clear and respectful, creating an environment where an employee feels safe and psychologically supported when addressing challenging issues.  The employee needs to understand that the goal is to help them succeed in their role with their team and the organization and provide an opportunity for professional growth and development.

Below are some tips on how to have successful, difficult conversations with employees:

  1. Plan the conversation.

Before having a difficult conversation with an employee, gather all relevant information and documents that apply to the situation (such as company policies and procedures, manager, or other employee statements).  Outline the main points to be covered and the expected outcome.  Anticipate the employee’s reactions and possible questions and prepare responses accordingly.  Role play with HR to prepare for the difficult conversation will help with your confidence and composure.

  1. Schedule an appropriate time.

Schedule a 1:1 meeting in advance and choose a time that works for both the employee’s and your schedule.  Select a time that will not interrupt the employee’s work or catch them off guard.  Let the employee know the purpose of the conversation and provide an agenda.  Encourage the employee to prepare some talking points or questions so they are also ready for the meeting.  Choose a private and comfortable location where the meeting will not be disturbed or overheard.

  1. Be clear and stick to the facts.

When delivering feedback or addressing an issue, focus on the facts and be clear and concise.  Avoid generalizations, accusations, or judgments.  Use specific examples and feedback to illustrate the issue and the impact of the employee’s behavior or performance on the team or organization.  Discuss the expectations and goals for the employee.

  1. Be professional.

Maintain professionalism during the meeting with the employee.  Use a calm, respectful tone and language, and avoid emotional expressions or gestures.  Be engaged, and do not interrupt or dismiss the employee while they are speaking.  Do not raise your voice, interrupt, or criticize the employee personally.

  1. Listen actively and be empathetic.

The most important aspect of communicating with the employee is to be a good listener.  Ask questions to clarify and confirm your understanding of what the employee says.  Acknowledge the employee’s feelings and perspective and show you care about their well-being and success.  Express your appreciation for their contributions and strengths and focus on the positive outcomes you want to achieve.

  1. Be fair.

Make sure your feedback and decisions are based on facts consistent with how similar situations have been handled in the past.  Explain the rationale behind the feedback or decision and how it aligns with the organization’s core values and expectations.  Treat all employees equally and fairly without bias.

  1. Collaborate and focus on a resolution.

Don’t make the conversation a one-way lecture.  Involve the employee in finding solutions and creating an action plan.  Ask for the employee’s input and suggestions on improving or resolving the issue.  Provide some practical advice and resources to help the employee improve and move forward in a positive way.  Set clear and realistic goals and timelines and agree on how progress will be monitored and followed up.

Difficult conversations with employees are part of being a leader and do not have to be a negative experience.  By following these tips, you can have productive and respectful conversations to help your employees grow and improve their performance.