Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Conducting Difficult Conversations with Employees

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 03/26/2020

A manager conducting a difficult conversation with an employee
When conducting difficult conversations with employees its important to have confidence and prepare multiple solutions when possible.

Table of Contents

Personnel management issues can affect employee productivity, which in turn can impact a company's ability to conduct business in a professional and efficient manner. When conflicts arise, it can be necessary to gather all parties involved, discuss, and seek a resolution. The best approach for these difficult conversations with employees is to address specific issues in a constructive, nonhostile manner. Whether you're giving constructive feedback or simply denying an employee request, it's important to have confidence and prepare multiple solutions when possible to make hard conversations at work more productive.

Understanding the need for difficult conversations at work

When interpersonal conflicts hamper productivity, it's imperative to join together different viewpoints to create the opportunity for  a satisfactory resolution. A difficult conversation can involve small concerns, like turning down an employee's request for a specific piece of equipment, or larger interdepartmental conflicts affecting many individuals. Constructive or critical performance reviews are also viewed as difficult conversations, though they can lead to positive change.

Difficult discussions at work are not solely conducted by human resources, nor do they take place in only one area of a business. They happen every day, on the factory floor, or in laboratories, where conflicts arise over processes and procedures. These conversations can also cover company-wide decisions such as upcoming layoffs or changes to employee benefits. Gaining the skills to facilitate these interactions can improve a manager's leadership skills and enable them to enact positive change in the workplace.

How to have a difficult conversation at work

No one looks forward to having challenging conversations at work, but following a structured process can help these difficult discussions be productive and achieve their preset goals. Your approach doesn't need to be exactly the same as every other manager in your office, but knowing how you'll handle the conversation ahead of time allows you to clearly establish and communicate your goal(s). Here are some steps to consider taking when navigating a challenging conversation:

Prepare in advance

To prepare for a difficult conversation, start by reviewing the facts and outlining your goals. Knowing what needs to be addressed can help keep you focused and drive the conversation forward. Take the time to identify all available facts prior to the meeting. You may also want to draw up a list of talking points to be covered. You may decide to focus on a specific incident or spend time discussing overall employee performance objectives. This clear game plan can help you stay focused on the primary concerns and minimize emotional reactions that can derail the overall effectiveness of a hard conversation.

Establish clear goals and the purpose of the conversation early on

Rather than keep an employee in the dark, which can increase their stress level during tough talks, it's best to state your purpose early on. For example, if you're dealing with an employee who is under-performing, start by asking for the individual's take, then describe the deficiencies you've noted and what improved performance needs to look like. If the conversation gets off track early on, return to your original intention and make sure you've covered your talking points.

To help ensure that you accomplish your goals, ask yourself the following questions before having the conversation:

  • What's the big message or takeaway you hope to communicate during the conversation?
  • What specific examples or data points can you use to illustrate the issue, and to illustrate how you want it solved?
  • What clear, measurable action steps should individuals take after the meeting to resolve the problem?
  • What questions or information gaps do you have that require clarification or more details?

Be direct and concise

State the reason for the meeting as clearly as possible. If you need to expand on your purpose, resist the temptation to include extraneous details or unneeded information. Let the participant request further clarification if they don't understand something. In this way, you can communicate the issues upfront and carry on the meeting in an efficient manner.

Listen to what is said

A difficult conversation is exactly that — a conversation. While an employee's first response to your comments may be defensive, it's also possible they will offer information that further expands your knowledge of the situation and leads to a favorable outcome. At the very least, demonstrating that you're listening can help defuse an otherwise tense situation, and can result in that person being more receptive to potential solutions. If the employee isn't communicating, ask open-ended questions to get them to talk. You can get much more value from the meeting by listening, and may uncover issues that were not seen before.

Find, offer, or suggest a solution

By focusing on how your goal aligns with your employee's objectives, you may have a much more successful conversation that generates long-term results. HR managers and employees are not robots. Addressing an issue is a chance for everyone in the meeting to look at ways to improve processes, relationships, and performance. This meeting can be a breakthrough for all parties to uncover some effective ideas for improving workflow.

Manage emotions

Managing the emotions involved in tough conversations is critical. Approach difficult discussions professionally, and leave your personal emotions at the door. Be prepared for a range of possible reactions from your employee, from sadness to anger to defensiveness, depending on the situation. Avoid reacting from a negative emotional state yourself, such as yelling, using sarcasm, or stonewalling. Instead, acknowledge the emotions but then bring the focus back to the objective at hand. For example, consider a statement such as "I know it can be frustrating to have to clarify why you missed a deadline, and it sounds like there were reasonable circumstances here. Let's work together long-term to ensure this doesn't happen again."

Document conversations and outcomes

Sometimes a difficult conversation can resolve an issue; in other cases, it's the first of subsequent discussions, or one step in a process that ultimately leads to employee discipline. Therefore, it's important to have a clear policy on how feedback and conversations are documented. Is the information being recorded in the employee's file, or shared via a memo with your company's executives or legal department? When in doubt, consult an employment attorney or HR expert to understand which conversations need to be documented and in what form. If you need to access that information later, it will be available in a format that could be used to document a disciplinary decision up to and including termination.

Be empathetic

Each individual discussion should be customized with the person you're talking to in mind. Consider why this discussion matters for the employee. For example, when an employee isn't taking advantage of training opportunities, this can reflect negatively on their performance. If the employee's goal is a promotion, explore how these choices affect the worker's long-term chances for growth. Productivity improvements, for example, can lead to a better work/life balance or the chance to work on more interesting projects. Focus your approach by aligning your goal with your employee's objectives, and you may have a much more successful conversation that generates long-term results.

Another factor to consider is communication styles. Does the employee appreciate concise, direct communication, or do you need to frame it differently to maximize how receptive they are? Targeting your style to what will resonate best with your employee can help increase the positive impact of the conversation.

Importance of having constructive conversations

Although no one looks forward to having difficult conversations with employees, there is often a greater risk when issues are not addressed and/or not dealt with in the proper manner. Allowing issues to linger and grow can result in employee disengagement, increased stress, missed deadlines, and lack of productivity. These types of conversations should ultimately be viewed as a jumping-off point rather than a "one-and-done" moment. Managers should follow up on topics covered and action items devised during the conversation. It can help increase the chances that real change will occur.

Gauging the long-term effectiveness following difficult conversations

The success of a particular conversation can be measured in a variety of ways. Action steps can be followed up on at set time intervals, such as two weeks, two months, and one year. An improvement in an employee's next performance review is another measurable outcome, as well as increased departmental efficiency. Employee satisfaction surveys can also be used to rate how effective these types of conversations are.

If you'd like to support your managers by providing training for having difficult conversations, a learning management system can help you roll out a documented procedure and offer a resource for those wishing to further develop conflict resolution skills.


We can help you tackle business challenges like these Contact us today

* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

About Paychex

Paychex was founded over four decades ago to relieve the complexity of running a business and make our clients' lives easier, so they can focus on what matters most.

We provide: