Training and Performance

9 Crucial Rules to Remember When Having Difficult Conversations with Employees

Have you ever heard your car make a noise that didn’t sound right?

Even as the noise grows louder, you put off getting it fixed.

Then one day, your car breaks down. The realization that you could have avoided the problem earlier hits you like a punch to the gut.

Unfortunately, this the same logic exercised by many business leaders when it comes to conversations with employees. Initiating a simple talk can be a real roadblock.

Whether it’s a performance issue or employees feuding, there comes a time when leaders must break the silence.

It’s easy for managers to brush the issue under the rug. They often don’t know how to handle the situation or emotional employees.

But avoiding these conversations can make the situation even worse. The longer you wait, the more it can affect the workplace environment and productivity.

Try these tips to put your fears in the rearview mirror so you can focus on growing your business.

1. Conquer your fears

Let’s face it – no one likes conflict.

Managers are hesitant to engage in these types of conversations because they’re not sure how to approach their employees. Often, leaders fear the conversation won’t go well and employees will become upset.

That concern is valid. Some employees don’t want to be told they’re failing or making mistakes. They don’t want to have a sense that they’re in trouble.

You have to consider that employees don’t always understand how their behaviors affect others around them or the environment overall. They may appreciate your concern. Most “difficult” conversations are not just about mistakes, which are sometimes the easier dialogues.

2. Do your homework

The more you prepare, the better the meeting should go.

You don’t want to pull employees in and address them based solely on your observations. That’s not a prepared meeting. You need proof. Cold hard facts. And most importantly, your lack of preparation won’t help your employees’ growth.

Remember that as a business leader, you’re also a coach. It’s up to you to provide everything your employees need to succeed. It’s important that you’re as committed to your company’s overall goals as your employees are.

You should be able to outline expectations and explain how your employees’ are missing the mark. Performance reviews are a way to evaluate if certain goals or objectives are being met. Having fact-based evidence leaves less room for interpretation.

It’s important to document conflicts and have policies in place for certain situations. For example, if you have an employee who is frequently late to work, make sure you have a clear attendance policy. It’s difficult to enforce rules and guidelines if they were never set in the first place.

If employees are coming to you with complaints about one another, you should strongly consider filing a grievance on their behalf. When employees come forward, you acquire a working knowledge and responsibility to work out the conflict. This can also reduce liability for your company and management.

3. Be positive

It’s important to set a positive tone going into your meeting. If you have a negative approach, your employees are more likely to get defensive and argumentative.

Every situation is different. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you like news delivered to you?

Pitch your anticipated conversation as a “quick chat.” Avoid language that may suggest punishment, such as a “disciplinary meeting.”

Here are some simple questions to help launch the conversation:

– How’s everything going?
– How are you feeling about joining the team?
– I have some idea of what we can do. But do you have ideas of how we can meet that goal?
– Can I have a second of your time to talk about some feedback we’ve received about your behavior?

Spin your questions with a positive approach to open the lines of communication and have a coaching dialogue.

You don’t want your employees to feel like they’re in trouble. Otherwise, they’ll have the mentality that they’re on an inevitable path to termination and lose motivation for their job.

Make your conversation an open dialogue with proven facts and data to support your case.

Always end the meeting on a positive note. Your employee should leave thinking they can do better. You want them to feel accountable for metrics and committed to meeting their goals.

4. Leave your emotions at the door

These meetings can easily become emotionally-charged, so you should make a strong effort to keep your own feelings in check. Your meetings should always be fact-based.

Avoid saying “I’m disappointed” or “I feel.” Doing so only adds biased emotional elements to the conversation. You can come off as supportive without using these lines.

If the emotional levels rise for either party, pause the meeting and ask to reschedule. It’s essential to navigate these situations carefully.

5. Find the right setting

By identifying the right setting, you’re helping set the tone of the meeting.

Depending on the situation, your office is usually an acceptable location for the conversation.

For general dialogue, you can choose to talk over a cup of coffee or lunch. Pulling them off site for the conversation can lessen the chance of employees feeling embarrassed. However, an off-site meeting used to deliver a message may not be appropriate or interpreted well. It depends on the culture of the company.

If it’s serious, a cup of coffee may not be appropriate. Delivering a formal counseling or performance improvement plan over a cup of coffee in the local diner is not common. In this case, you should select a common meeting spot, such as a conference room at your office.

In any case, choose a safe environment that makes everyone feel comfortable.

6. Can I get a witness?

Unless it’s a quick chat, you should almost always find a witness to be present.

This is even more necessary when it comes to dealing with policy violations, behavioral issues or anything that may require disciplinary coaching interaction.

Your on-site HR representative can be used as a third-party witness. If that person is unavailable, consider using another manager of the team or an HR liaison. Never involve another employee.

Your third party should be briefed on the situation to ensure that you’re both clear about each other’s roles and responsibilities during the meeting.

7. Be consistent

Hold all your employees accountable to the same performance expectations.

Have the same dialogue with anyone who is slipping. You don’t want to make it seem like you’re alienating or picking on a certain group or individual.

With the right preparation, you should be able to refer back to the facts to explain why you’re having the meeting. This will counter any concerns your employees may have about being singled out.

8. Keep it confidential

You want to be judicial as possible when addressing conflicts between employees. Any employees who aren’t involved shouldn’t be aware of the situation.

If employees come to you “confidentially,” make sure they understand you cannot guarantee 100 percent confidentiality. Depending on what they disclose, you may have a responsibility to take action or speak to others.

Use your employees’ complaints, first-hand accounts from any witnesses and the facts to determine what actually occurred. Take a step back and understand there’s more than one side to every story.

Tell your employees you’ve received feedback regarding their offensive behavior. Leave it general to protect everyone involved. There are always three sides to these situations: the employee who complained, the employee who was complained about and the truth.

9. When all else fails

It’s rare for conversations like these to get out of hand. But if employees act rude, begin swearing or displaying aggressive behaviors, then it’s time to end the meeting.

If your employees’ are upset and likely disrupt the rest of the office, consider sending them home for the day. This will allow everyone’s emotions to settle down.

Then regroup with your third-party witness and reflect on what happened in the meeting that led to the escalation so that you can correct it in future interactions with these employees.

Don’t let difficult conversations wreck you efforts to retain and attract the top talent. In this free report, you’ll learn the secrets to employee engagement and the best talent strategies. If your small business is out to compete with big businesses for the best talent, then you can’t afford to miss this.


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  • Insperity Staff

    Insperity Staff

    Since 1986, Insperity has provided industry-leading human resources management products and services to over 100,000 businesses. With Insperity® Workforce Optimization®, our full service HR, you’ll get administrative relief, access to better benefits for your employees, reduced liabilities and shoulder-to-shoulder HR support from a seasoned service team.

    Other posts by Insperity Staff


    Avatar for Insperity Staff
    Aug 30, 2016

    This was very helpful.

    Insperity Blog
    Aug 30, 2016
    Insperity Blog

    Thanks for your comment, Kay! So pleased you found the information in our post helpful.

    Insperity Blog
    Jul 5, 2016
    Insperity Blog

    Thank you, Olena! So glad you find them helpful and engaging!

    Avatar for Insperity Staff
    Jul 2, 2016

    You have the most informative and actionable posts. Thank you!

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