HR: Handling tough conversations with employees

At some point in your career as an HR leader, you have most likely had your fair share of awkward, uncomfortable or otherwise challenging conversations with various workers in your organization. 

If you’ve managed to avoid this particular responsibility up to this point, first, congrats. Second, trust us – you won’t be able to dodge it forever. Difficult conversations with employees are part of any HR professional’s job. 

These talks become necessary for a variety of reasons such as when staff members behave inappropriately, fail to perform according to the expectations for their roles, butt heads with co-workers or break other important company rules with any degree of frequency. Successful HR specialists should be able to talk with employees about these issues in ways that are clear, direct and productive – and, ideally, come to a positive conclusion for all involved. 

We’ve compiled some key guidance on how to handle such situations; HR pros should not only review this information themselves, but also share it with department leaders and manager as it is very likely those individuals also will have to get involved in these discussions (both alongside HR and on their own). 

Knowing when to have difficult conversations with employees

Sometimes it’s obvious when HR, managers or both need to hold less-than-amiable talks with certain workers, per The Balance. For example: 

  • One or more employees repeatedly ignores a clearly outlined office dress code.  
  • People fail to keep common areas clean.
  • Workers talk incessantly and loudly in workspaces, or are disruptive in other ways. 
  • Co-workers complain about an individual’s offensive humor because it makes them uncomfortable. 
  • You’ve seen or received a complaint about unprofessional, flirtatious behavior or sexual harassment. 

Other circumstances may be less obvious or require a different approach:

  • A pattern of poor performance and/or task failure.
  • Issues with the cleanliness of an employee’s workspace or personal hygiene.
  • Concerns from multiple team members about an individual’s performance, attitude or well-being. 
  • Signs of substance abuse,  be they acute, as if they’re using on the job and act dazed, or more subtle, like arriving at work looking hungover. 

Tips on how to approach difficult conversations 

Often times, an employee’s behavior or lowered performance is the result of personal struggles or issues outside of the workplace. As such, it is important to handle all of these situations with care and concern, while also addressing the issue at hand. Here are a few suggestions on how to accomplish that goal:

Use discretion

There is a strong possibility these conversations  could quickly turn tense or combative. Pick a private area where you can’t be overheard, at a time when you can give the individual your full attention. Also, be very clear with others who may be involved that these conversations are confidential. Workplace gossip is unavoidable, but it is important not to add fuel to that fire. 

Keep it one-on-one

When tough conversations with specific employees are the result of complaints you’ve received from co-workers, you cannot disclose that fact to the person at the center of these issues. 

The knowledge that other people are complaining about them can make an employee feel awkward, self-conscious and defensive. Moreover, they likely either know or strongly suspect that they have been the subject of complaints. Confirming their suspicions will increase their insecurity and undoubtedly make the situation worse. Instead, in the interest of good workplace empathy, address the complaint or unwanted behavior in a more general way. 

Focus on the specifics

Difficult work situations will often involve highly charged emotions – it’s human nature. As an HR professional, it’s your responsibility to ensure the conversations with individual workers regarding these issues stay as focused and productive as possible.

Your best bet is to outline the specifics of the employee’s misconduct or poor performance and clearly explain why the behavior in question is inappropriate and problematic. Or, in the case of performance slippage, detail how they could be affecting the department’s bottom line (and, by extension, that of the organization). Provide clear, fact-based examples of how the behavior conflicts with company policy, expectations of the employee’s position or both.

Frame the conversation positively (as much as possible)

If you’re nervous or uncomfortable before having a difficult conversation with an employee, it can impact your attitude and demeanor during the talk. First, don’t be afraid to acknowledge at the beginning of the conversation that it may involve entering difficult or uncomfortable territory. Doing so keeps the discussion honest and can help prevent the employee at its center from feeling blindsided. 

Second, look at these discussions – especially those involving workers’ performance – not as pile-ons of negative feedback, but rather deliveries of constructive criticism. Focus on the clear goals of improving employee satisfaction and – ultimately – bolstering the productivity of the organization. 

Listen and be empathetic

There may be a valid explanation for poor performance or problematic behavior. There also may be extenuating circumstances to consider. You won’t know what these are unless you listen carefully. Give individuals the opportunity to share their point of view or situation and be an active, empathetic listener, as recommended by Harvard Business Review. 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 to address the issue at hand, and so they fully understand what is expected 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, including details of all points discussed and expectations for future improvements to behavior, performance or both. Schedule meetings at regular intervals to ask follow-up questions and ensure the employee is on track with the established plan.