How to Handle Tough Conversations with Employees


At one time or another, as an HR professional, you will need to have challenging, awkward or uncomfortable conversations with employees. It’s part of the job. Sometimes employees behave inappropriately, do not perform as needed, or butt heads with co-workers. Skilled HR professionals are able to talk to employees about these issues in ways that are clear, direct and productive. While the guidelines below may seem obvious, it never hurts to be reminded of what to do when faced with this unpleasant task. These are also helpful to pass along to managers.

Use discretion

Any conversation you feel could become difficult or tense should be held privately and at a time when you can give the employee your full attention. Have the meeting in your office or a conference room with the door closed. Make sure that any of your colleagues or the supervisor of the employee know that the conversation is confidential and should not be shared with other employees. You don’t want to provide fodder for gossip.

Keep the conversation one-on-one

When you need to have a conversation with an employee because you’ve received complaints about that individual from other workers, make sure you don’t disclose that information in the meeting. The knowledge that other people are complaining about them can make an employee feel awkward, self-conscious and defensive. Address the complaint or unwanted behavior in a more general way.

“Have clear examples of how the behavior conflicts with company policy.”

Focus on the specifics

Difficult work situations often involve highly charged emotions – it’s human nature. It is HR’s responsibility to ensure conversations with all parties remain as focused and productive as possible. You can do this by focusing on the specific, concrete reasons why an employee’s behavior is inappropriate or problematic. Have clear examples of how the behavior conflicts with company policy.

Reframe the conversation more positively

If you are nervous or uncomfortable going into the meeting with an employee, it can impact your attitude and demeanor during the conversation. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the conversation, look at it as an opportunity to deliver constructive feedback that can improve the employees’ happiness at work and the productivity of the organization.

That being said, don’t be afraid to acknowledge upfront that the conversation may be a difficult one or uncomfortable to hear. Doing so helps keep the discussion honest and can help prevent the employee from feeling blindsided.

Listen and be empathetic

An employee’s behavior may clearly conflict with company policy or simply appear strange to you and others, but there may be a valid explanation or extenuating circumstances to consider. Give individuals the opportunity to share their point of view or situation and be an active listener while you do. Just feeling heard can help someone be more receptive to constructive feedback..

Create a roadmap and follow up

Present employees with clear, actionable steps they can take address the issue at hand, and so they fully understand what is expected of them going forward. The Society for Human Resource Management suggests establishing specific goals and a timeline for progress. Provide the employee with documentation of the conversation, the points that were discussed and the expectations for future performance. Also, follow up at regular intervals to ensure the employee is on track with the established progress plan.

No question, conversations about issues with an employee’s behavior or performance can be uncomfortable and emotional. But, when managed the right way, these discussions can be productive and beneficial for both the employee and the organization.