The HR Place

Dealing with difficult conversations

Whoever said it was easy to have a difficult conversation was… hang on, who was that? I’m sure there is nobody in the world who enjoys holding someone accountable. I have always had to tell myself, ‘if you don’t address this problem, it’ll only get worse for someone else’. As HR professionals, I genuinely think that although we sometimes (often) have to bear bad news, at least we can make sure we are keeping a bad situation as dignified as possible for everyone involved.

As a manager, it’s harder in a way because it’s your call. You’re not just the messenger. To prepare yourself for a difficult conversation, think about the impact you believe the employee’s attitude or behaviour is having on the business and other people who work with that individual.

  • It helps to have a framework and policies regarding how an employee should behave at work, and to take this to the meeting with you so you can refer to it and show the employee where they are falling short. 
  • If you can, have another supervisor with you, or an HR representative, so that it’s clear it’s not a personal attack.
  • Try to make the employee feel more comfortable. Let them know you realise it’s awkward and that that’s completely natural.
  • Don’t make it personal. Focus on results, performance, and the fact you would like the problem to be addressed so that they can be successful in their role.
  • Tell them what they do that is good (without adding a “but”!).
  • Give specific examples of what needs to be changed; avoid being vague or using language like “you always…”.
  • Listen carefully to your employee’s response. You might find out what is behind their behaviour.
  • Don’t fill awkward silences. Give the employee a chance to think and talk – you are more likely to get useful feedback from them if you let a few moments pass and allow them time to reflect.