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7 Tips for Conducting Difficult Conversations with Employees

Human Resources

What's the best approach to dealing with employees who are demonstrating performance issues? While this is a scenario no business owner or manager looks forward to, the best solution in many cases is undertaking what's known as a "difficult conversation" that addresses specific issues in a constructive, non-hostile manner. The same approach may also be useful in other challenging situations, such as the prospect of an upcoming layoff or dealing with dissatisfied clients or underperforming vendors.

With employees, the key is engaging in a discussion that eventually leads to enhanced performance and a more positive attitude in the workplace. Here are seven tips for conducting a difficult conversation and getting favorable results:

  1. Don't put it off. As with any unpleasant task, managers may want to procrastinate talking to an employee about performance or attendance issues. Obviously, the sooner you address the problem, the quicker a solution can be found and everyone may be able to move forward.
  2. Plan ahead. Never attempt to "wing it" with a difficult conversation. While it's not always necessary to write out a script of what you want to say, putting together key bullet points is essential. Also, look at framing the discussion in a way that emphasizes development as the desired outcome, rather than focusing on shortcomings and mistakes the employee has made.
  3. Clarify expectations. Start the conversation by clarifying your expectations concerning the employee's performance--what you see as the problem and ways in which behavior can be changed to improve productivity or other issues. "Basically, you want to ensure that your employees understand it's not a personal attack, but that it's about a specific issues and expectations around that problem," writes Sarah K. White at CIO.
  4. Recognize the employee's strengths. Assuming that there is a specific issue to address and that the employee is otherwise a valued contributor to the organization, be sure to acknowledge areas of strength and achievement in that person's record.
  5. Listen to what they have to say. A difficult conversation is exactly that--a conversation. While an employee's first response to your comments may be defensive, it's also possible he or she will offer information that further clarifies the situation and leads to a favorable outcome. At the very least, demonstrating that you're listening helps defuse an otherwise tense situation, and can result in that person being more receptive to potential solutions.
  6. Choose an appropriate setting. Don't wait around for the "perfect moment" to hold a difficult conversation. Schedule a specific time to meet, preferably away from the humming center of the workplace, since employees find it easier to receive constructive feedback in private than public.
  7. Foster a communicative workplace environment. The better you know your workforce, the less challenging these talks may be. No one's suggesting you invite employees over for a backyard barbecue, but fostering communicative and respectful relationships makes it easier to address problems as they arise.

With employees, the key is engaging in a discussion that eventually leads   to enhanced performance and a more positive attitude in the workplace.

To further increase the odds of success, consider some training for your managers that focuses on conducting difficult conversations. This can be especially useful for employees who have recently been promoted to a managerial or supervisory position, and need help in learning how to talk with other employees who were (until recently) their equal in the workplace.


This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.