HR Management & Compliance, Talent

5 Tips for Tough Conversations with Employees

It’s a moment that any HR professional experiences sooner or later: a tough conversation with an employee. Maybe you’re implementing a professional improvement plan, maybe you need to discuss ways the individual can improve his or her performance, or maybe you need to implement a consequence for unprofessional behavior. No matter what the circumstance or situation, there’s going to be a time when you have a conversation with an employee you’re not excited about having.

Source: Vadym Pastukh, shutterstock

But there are a few tips you can use to make you feel a bit more confident, even if the topic you’re going to cover is heavy. Although the specifics may vary, these tried-and-true tactics will allow you to feel confident and positive facilitating even the most awkward of conversations. If your goal is to leave the meeting feeling like you stated your company’s position and for the employee to feel like he or she understands the situation, clarity and preparation are essential. Here are five tips that can help you through tough conversations with employees and yield a fruitful, effective, and kind meeting.

Don’t Let the Meeting Be a Surprise

It might feel tempting to spring this type of meeting on an unsuspecting employee. After all, if you hint that the conversation might be tough, won’t that set things up to be awkward? But the truth is, by letting someone know what the meeting will be about and that it may be difficult, you’re giving the person time to be prepared and setting a professional, courteous tone before things get started. If you catch someone off guard or by surprise, the message you need to deliver will be much more difficult. When you send the employee a meeting invite, make sure to explicitly say what it is you’ll be discussing.

Have the Meeting at the End of the Day

No, this isn’t so the employee has to spend the whole day stressing out! It’s so that after the meeting, the employee is able to go home and think through the meeting on his or her own. The worst thing is for an employee to have to go back to his or her cubicle and try and get work done after receiving negative feedback. By letting an employee leave work after a tough conversation, you’re setting a firm time boundary by when the meeting will end so that the talk doesn’t go on longer than it needs to and can stay on task. You’re also giving the employee space to feel his or her feelings, whether or not they’re rational. Think about it: After you’ve been disciplined, do you want to go back to a cubicle, where you’re surrounded by your other colleagues, or do you want to go home, complain to your spouse, and go to bed early? A new day can provide a fresh perspective and allow employees to properly process the information they’ve been given without making rash decisions.

Keep Your Own Emotions in Check

Because there’s a need for a difficult conversation in the first place, chances are you may be feeling some emotions of your own. But whether you’re angry, frustrated, distraught, or sad, it’s important to keep your own emotions in check while speaking with an employee. It’s not professional to raise your voice or burst into tears, even though that may be what you feel inclined to do. By keeping a firm, professional, kind demeanor, you’ll set the proper tone for the meeting and be respectful as possible toward your employee. Even saying things like “I feel X” may not be appropriate in this type of situation—the meeting isn’t about your feelings; it’s about what has actually transpired. Being disappointed or upset with someone isn’t a reason to discipline him or her, but if this person actually did something unprofessional or failed to achieve an important metric, that’s what the focus should be on. Take your feelings and emotions out of the conversation as much as possible. The one time they may be beneficial is when you’re attempting to be empathetic—a comforting statement as small as “this must be hard for you to hear” can go a long way. The conversation needs to be centered on the employee and his or her actions, as well as the consequences, not how the situation makes you as a manager feel.

Be Prepared

This may be obvious—you should be prepared for any meeting! But for this kind of meeting in particular, you want to go above and beyond to make sure you’re armed with the facts. If you’re putting an employee on a professional improvement plan, for instance, you need to have the exact numbers behind why you believe the person isn’t reaching his or her goals. If you’re trying to get to the bottom of an employee conflict, you want to have direct quotes about whatever the situation is and show you actually know what you’re talking about. If you’re letting an employee go, you need to have a reason why, as well as the answers to questions like whether you’ll be able to provide a referral in the future. By being as specific as possible, you’ll eliminate any confusion, making the employee feel secure and understood and using your time effectively.

Set Up Next Steps

All those involved should know their responsibilities and next steps by the end of every meeting. But this becomes even more essential in difficult conversations. You don’t want the employee to leave a hard conversation with no idea what to do next. Whether it’s that the person needs to set new goals, apologize to another coworker, or go through some sort of formal disciplinary action, he or she needs to know what the next steps are. Better yet, once the meeting is over, put those next steps in writing, and deliver them to the employee via e-mail so things are crystal clear.