How to handle difficult conversations with employees: Ideas and 10 examples

When it comes to handling difficult conversations with employees - whether those be about performance, discipline or personal issues - there are a few steps you can take to avoid the dread of initiating these conversations.

Any organisation is due to come across issues whether they be financial, logistical or managerial. Fundamental to overcoming any obstacle and handling difficult conversations with employees is communication.

How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations with Employees

One common fault in dealing with issues that occur with employees is sweeping it under the rug - ignoring it and hoping it will go away. That may be the easy option, but it’s far from beneficial. When you conclude that a conversation surrounding an issue is needed, start taking the necessary steps to open up the discussion.

How to prepare for difficult conversations with employees

1. Take initiative and gather your notes

Before you lay out out plans for a meeting, take a minute to reflect on whether you are treating the employee on a level playing field. If you want to get the most out of any meeting, you need to go in prepared. Ideally you will need factual data alongside your observations in order to justify the meeting.

You'll need to understand what you expect of the employee after the meeting, and be able to concisely convey what corrective action needs to be taken and why. Back up the reasons behind the ‘why’ such as presenting attendance policies to an employee who is consistently late.

Furthermore, make sure you have a place to document everything that has been discussed, and any actions that have been set.

2. Find the right time and environment

It’s only going to aggravate the situation if you immediately drag an employee from an important task into a public area to chew their ear off. You must exercise empathy here and find somewhere that sets the tone for what is to be discussed, for instance a meeting room/office for disciplinary meetings, or a café for a more informal discussion over personal issues impacting an employee's performance. Either way, you must find an environment that makes everyone feel comfortable.

3. Do you need a witness?

Consider if having a witness present will be necessary, especially in policy violation, disciplinary or employee grievance matters. A witness is typically a manager or HR liaison, and never another employee. They should also be briefed on the situation beforehand.

4. Approach the meeting with a positive mindset

The first and crucial step to setting the tone for all parties involved is the title of the meeting in hand. Avoid using language that suggests punishment such as ‘Disciplinary meeting’. Instead propose a ‘catch up’ in order to avoid putting other parties on the defensive from the beginning.

Avoid listing off their shortfalls. Instead ask them open ended questions to get them to open up and discuss the issues themselves. For example:

“How is everything going at the moment?”

“Is there anything you are finding difficult?”

“Do you have any ideas of how we could make this task easier for you?”

As well as highlighting the key issues at hand, provide them with examples of positive actions they can take (and positive actions they are already taking) in order to show appreciation if appreciation is due.

Remember: Constructive, not critical!

5. Control your emotions

Meetings should always be fact-based and not emotionally charged. Try to avoid emotional language. If emotions do start to overwhelm the discussion and deteriorate any progress that is being made, you must make a decision to put the meeting on hold and reschedule.

6. Keep it confidential

If an employee has approached you confidentially, you need to reassure them of where they stand. If you cannot guarantee confidentiality as it’s dependent on what they disclose, advise them of the policies and the steps you need to take. However, where possible, protect all employees' confidentiality.

7. End on a positive note

Try to end the meeting on a positive note. This can be done by giving positive affirmations of what needs to be done and what benefits will come from the actions set.

8. Reflect on the meeting

Take time to review what was discussed. If the situation has been resolved or is improving let the employee know - take them out for a coffee, tell them they are great! Make sure that you have a follow-up check-in booked if needed to review action items.

Whatever happens, don’t let difficult conversations impinge on your business. Accept that they will happen, conduct them to the best of your ability, and have faith that your actions will yield positive results.

10 Examples of Handling Difficult Conversations with Employees

1. An employee is consistently late

If an employee is consistently late, the first thing you should strive to understand is why. After opening the meeting softly by asking them how they are, ask them a couple of questions such as:

“Are you aware of the attendance policies at our company?”

“Is there a specific reason you are not making it to work on time?”

“Is there anything we can do to help you get to work on time?”

“What actions do you believe you can take to make it to work on time?”

Make sure you have the appropriate documentation to evidence their tardiness. And go into the meeting with an open mind, but also with suggestable actions for the future, such as:

  • Get them to check in with you as soon as they know they will be late.
  • Make prior transport arrangements.
  • Draw out a weekly schedule to stick to.

2. An employee is underperforming

Schedule a meeting to discuss the reasons behind why they are underperforming. Ask some open ended questions about performance such as:

“What do you believe we expect of you at the moment?”

“How well are you coping with performing these tasks on time?”

“What corrective action do you believe will improve your progress?”

You should also suggest actions they need to take and draw up a timeline of objectives that they need to complete. Regularly check up on their progress and offer assistance where possible.

3. An employee is struggling at work due to personal issues

If an employee has suggested they are having personal issues which are effecting their work, you must reassure them of confidentially and offer them assistance in regards to their progress. This aid may come in the form of changing their work patterns, referring them to an HR support contact or liaising with their manager.

4. An employee is being inappropriate in the workplace

Depending on its severity a manager may be able to handle the situation. In this case you must assess the situation, gather evidence and bring the offending employee in for a discussion about their behaviour.

It's important in this manner to respect anonymity when possible so that you reduce the chances of aggravating any relations within the office environment. You should try to get the offender to determine what they have done wrong, why they have offended, and what the corrective actions are needed to be taken. In some instances disciplinary actions should be handed out in accordance to company policy.

5. An employee is having issues with another employee

When a workplace grievance is filed by one employee about another employee, you must follow your company grievance policy which should roughly be along the lines of:

  • Investigate the claims to establish the facts. This will likely be done through interviewing both employees as well as witnesses.
  • Anonymise the witness statements.
  • You must decide if there is a need for disciplinary proceedings or whether the situation can be monitored and resolved informally.
  • Any subsequent disciplinary action must be full and fair, and if possible decided by a panel.

6. An employee is giving the wrong information to clients

Intervene as soon as possible to avoid any further discrepencies. The first step you should take is to find out the cause of giving the wrong information, whether it be due to a lack of education or an act of corporate sabotage. This knowledge can be gleaned by a straightforward meeting in an office, with your evidence at hand. Once you find the root of the issue, you must then proceed to conduct disciplinary action, or further educate your employee to ensure the mistake is not repeated. This may include conducting regular check ups.

7. An employee is distracting their colleagues

Many offices have a few confident individuals who may become distracting at times, and if you've noticed this, as well as a decrease in productivity, you can introduce a few steps to tackle the issue. The first would be to conduct a frank discussion with the individual asking them to refrain from distracting others. The second could be to move where they are working away from others they usually distract. And a third could be to give them a greater workload as a lack of work may well be the reason for their time to distract themselves.

8. An employee lacks personal hygiene

If you have received a complaint about a colleague lacking personal hygiene, you must be careful to handle the situation with empathy and grace. This is no place to shame anyone, as usually the source of personal hygiene may be linked to a much deeper issue. Therefore when possible, try to include this into an informal discussion and do not make it the sole purpose for said discussion. Perhaps organise an informal meeting with the purpose of discussing their performance, as well as asking how everything is, then take the opportunity to discuss personal hygiene. Let them know that everyone needs to make an effort across the board so as to not make the individual feel singled out.

9. An employee is failing to comply with company policy

First have an informal discussion to assess why they are failing to comply to company policy, with all evidence provided, then offer them actions they must take to correct their methods. If the employee continues to fail to comply with company policy you need to document and implement disciplinary proceedings.

10. Employees are having an inapropriate relationship in the office

When two employees are having an inapropriate relationship in the office, there can be several consequences such as complaints of favouritism, disruption to staff, sexual harassment claims, workplace gossip and time wasting. In order to resolve this issue, you must make sure there is lots of communication between the romantics and the management. The management must inform the romantics of the company policy, and the romantics must be transparent about their relationship.

Henry Watson

Henry Watson

Employee Experience Champion

5 minute readPublished on August 22, 2019

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