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Difficult conversations with employees: 10 crucial rules to remember


Initiating a talk with an employee who needs correction can be a roadblock for many managers. Whether it’s over a performance setback, a policy violation or an employee conflict, it may be tempting to brush the issue under the rug.

But as experienced leaders know, you can’t just hope the situation will blow over and resolve itself – most of the time, it will only get worse. This makes having difficult conversations with employees a vital part of a manager’s role.

Properly preparing for difficult conversations at work can make a big difference. Try these tips to put your fears in the rearview mirror so you can focus on growing your business.

10 tips for difficult conversations with employees

1. Conquer your fears

Let’s face it – no one likes conflict. This can cause leaders to turn a blind eye to issues that may be festering on their teams.

You might be hesitant to broach difficult conversations because you’re not sure how your employees will react or you don’t want to escalate an already tense situation. But while such fears may be valid, the more you avoid confronting a problem, the more pernicious it can become.

So, if you’re waiting to have tough conversations with employees until you feel comfortable, don’t – because it’s likely that time will never come. It’s natural to feel uneasy, so don’t be afraid to tackle your fear head-on. In fact, you’ll likely find that your team members will value an honest dialogue and appreciate your feedback. After all, unless you bring it to their attention, they may never realize how their negative behaviors can affect the whole group.

2. Do your homework

The more you prepare, the better the meeting should go. Before you meet with an employee to hash out the conflict, make sure you have all the cold, hard facts lined up. Basing difficult conversations solely on your own assumptions and observations won’t lead to employee growth but rather opens the door to conflict.

It’s important to have all the applicable policies on hand. For instance, if a team member is habitually late, have a clear attendance policy to show them and make sure they sign off on it. This will reinforce expectations and increase the chances of the guidelines being met.

Or, if an employee comes to you with a complaint about their co-worker, file a grievance on their behalf to document the conflict in writing and build out strategies for resolving the situation.

You must be ready to face all possible outcomes and employee reactions as well. Difficult conversations can take several different turns – the employee might receive your feedback favorably, get emotional or storm out of the office. As part of your homework, role-play this discussion with an objective third party to prepare yourself and craft an effective response for whatever you might encounter in your meeting.

3. Look for the positives

It’s important to set a positive tone from the outset. Otherwise, the employee might become defensive – or shut down altogether.

But don’t start off too positively, or your employee may feel set up when you dive into the difficult part of the conversation. Start with a question such as, “Do you have a moment to talk about some feedback?” Then get to the point as clearly and directly as possible.   

Make your conversation an open dialogue with proven facts and data to support your case. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you like the same news delivered to you? You don’t want your employees to feel like they’re in trouble. Otherwise, they may feel they’re on an inevitable path to termination and lose motivation for their job. One way to avoid this is to depersonalize the negative – to focus on the performance, not the person.

Here are some simple questions to help launch such crucial conversations at work:

– 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?

All team members have areas in which they need to improve, but remind them that you hired them for a reason. Employees need to know that you believe in their abilities and will equip them with the tools, resources and action steps to succeed. Don’t just fixate on their failings, but help them identify growth opportunities.

Always end the meeting on a positive note. Your employee should leave thinking they can do better and be committed to meeting their goals.

4. Leave your emotions at the door

Difficult conversations can easily become emotionally charged, so be sure to keep your own feelings in check. Avoid using “I feel” statements, as that phrasing could introduce unhelpful biases into the discussion. Remain objective and concentrate on the facts.

Also, keep in mind: Just because you leave emotions at the door doesn’t mean your employee will, too. People are at their most vulnerable when listening to hard feedback, and it can provoke a wide range of emotional responses – an employee might resort to tears, anger or accusations. They could even walk out on the discussion entirely. In any of these situations, pause and resume once everyone is calm – don’t power through it.

5. Choose the ideal setting

The physical environment can also set the tone for how your meeting will unfold. In most cases, your office is an acceptable location. As a general rule, praise in public and correct in private, so don’t meet for lunch or coffee or in a space at the office where others may overhear you.

In a hybrid work scenario, don’t ask a team member to come into the office on their remote day just to have the meeting. It’s OK to have difficult conversations virtually – but with video on so you can read each other’s nonverbal cues. This will help minimize any potential for miscommunication. If the discussion can wait, it’s best to schedule it for a time when you’ll both be together on site.

6. Know when to ask for assistance

If your meeting involves serious accusations, policy violations or an issue that requires disciplining employees, an HR representative should be present. If they’re unavailable, consider using another manager of the team. Never involve another employee.

You’ll also want to brief the witness on the situation ahead of time, so you’re both clear on your roles and responsibilities during the conversation. For instance, you might need them to observe and take notes, or act as a mediator to help control emotional outbursts and ensure the discussion remains on track.

7. Focus on consistency

Hold all employees accountable to the same performance and behavior expectations. Every team member deserves equal treatment across the board, so have the same difficult conversations with anyone who is slipping. You don’t want to make it seem like you’re alienating or picking on a certain individual or group. Otherwise, your organizational culture will suffer from disharmony and lack of trust.

Referring to concrete performance metrics can help ease concerns an employee might have about feeling unfairly targeted. Consistent policy adherence will show that you expect everyone to be at their best.

8. Keep it confidential

When sharing hard feedback or handling a conflict between employees, it’s vital to maintain confidentiality. That is, no one who isn’t involved in the situation should know about it. If other team members, or even someone in another department, catches wind of this sensitive information, rumors can spread, which can affect morale, erode trust and create a toxic environment.

However, if an employee comes to you in confidence, make sure they understand you cannot guarantee 100% confidentiality. Depending on what they disclose, you may have a responsibility to take action or inform others. Let them know you’ll protect their confidentiality as much as possible, but you’re also required to follow HR policies and the law.

In the case of an employee conflict, use your employees’ complaints, firsthand accounts from any witnesses and the facts to determine what actually occurred. Take a step back and understand there are always three sides to the story: the employee who complained, the employee who was complained about, and the truth.

9. Create a measurable action plan

The real mark of effective communication is how well it translates into resolution. Broaching difficult conversations is the first step; you should also work with the employee to create a development plan with measurable action steps they can take to improve. Otherwise, the same issue will continue to repeat itself.

Work together with your employee to write down a plan, then agree on deliverables and timelines to track their progress. Ensure that each stage of this plan is concrete and specific, so the employee has a clear direction, knows the expectations and can hold themselves accountable.

10. Loop back around

At the end of your initial conversation, make sure the employee understands what you expect from them moving forward – otherwise, their behavior can creep back over time. As the situation begins to resolve, check in with follow-up discussions to reinforce positive efforts and identify future growth goals.

Unlike the more difficult conversations you had before, these periodic check-ins can be more organic and informal. Feel free to use an already scheduled one-on-one meeting or ask if they want to grab coffee and chat. In other words, be human. This will demonstrate that you’re there for them and are truly invested in their continued growth.

Summing it all up

As a leader, it’s important to recognize the power you have in developing your team members. There’s a good chance they’re unaware of the negative impact they’re having on the rest of the group, but you can help them recognize their blind spots and turn themselves around. Bottom line: Difficult conversations will strengthen your team culture.

Don’t let the thought of having difficult conversations with employees wreck your efforts to retain and attract a great workforce. Learn the secrets to employee engagement and the best talent strategies by downloading our free e-book, Are You Doing Enough to Find and Retain Top Talent for Your Small Business?