Discussing negative aspects of employee performance or workplace behavior is often a difficult and uncomfortable task. While there are cases in which employees are willfully negligent or unethical, there are many more cases in which employees unintentionally fall short of expectations or at least do so without malicious intent. Discussing poor performance or inappropriate behavior with generally well-meaning employees can be particularly difficult, yet doing so is important for the wellbeing of your organization and personnel.
Having a conversation with employees who are not meeting expectations can be challenging for many reasons. There is often a fear that feelings will be hurt and that relationships will be damaged. This is especially true if you or your coworkers are close with the employee in question. Another common concern is that the conversation will turn confrontational instead of productive, leading to more harm than good. In extreme cases, an employee may even use your words against you and attempt to sue for wrongful termination or discrimination against a protected status. While these concerns are valid, there is much you can do to turn difficult conversations into productive, solutions-based dialogue. In the following, we will discuss best practices for having difficult conversations with employees.
Set the Tone and Come Prepared:
As the one initiating the difficult conversation, you will set the tone for better or for worse. For this reason, it is important that you take the time to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for the conversation. The SHRM Blog article, “Ask an Advisor: Pointers on Having Difficult Conversations,” by Jim Emanuel states, “The calmer you are during the meeting, the better you will be at handling the conversation. Reframing the conversation from one considered ‘difficult’ to one labeled more positively will make you less nervous and allow you to conduct the meeting in a calm fashion.” Take some deep breaths and do what you can to reduce your stress before, during, and after the meeting.
As you prepare for the meeting, it is also important to reflect on the purpose of the conversation, the main points you need to convey, and the possible outcomes. The Harvard Business Review article, “How to Handle Difficult Conversations at Work,” by Rebecca Knight emphasizes the importance of planning, not scripting. Knight states, “It can help to plan what you want to say by jotting down notes and key points before your conversation. Drafting a script, however, is a waste of time.” You should be prepared to talk with, not to, your employee, and a script cannot account for all the possible ways your employee may respond.
Cleary State the Facts and Provide Evidence:
Difficult conversations about underperformance or inappropriate workplace behavior should be based on observable and measurable facts, not attributions. For example, instead of saying “You have stopped caring about your work,” say, “There were uncorrected errors in your last three projects.” Making claims as to why an employee acted the way he or she did will only lead to disagreement, as you are making assumptions instead of stating irrefutable facts. In the Forbes article, “13 Ways Managers Can Initiate Tough Conversations With Employees,” Forbes Coaches Councilmember Bill Gardner states, “Before starting the conversation, think about the facts. Think about what a camera would record the person doing; something that you want them to change.” He adds, “If you can’t name the behavior(s), then you’re not ready to confront.” In addition to stating the facts, it is important to provide examples. While you don’t want to come across as combative by listing problem after problem, being prepared with specific examples or documentation of undesired behavior will allow you to clarify the issue and prove that one exists.
For example, let’s say that a male coworker made an inappropriate comment about a female coworker’s outfit. The male coworker does not have a history of making inappropriate comments, and the comment wasn’t severe enough to constitute harassment. That said, the comment was not workplace appropriate, and you are tasked with addressing the matter. You can confront the coworker angerly and state that he is sexist (an attribution), and you can state that he has said something inappropriate (nonspecific). In the first case, the employee is likely to feel attacked and will counteract with all the reasons he is not sexist. In the second case, he may or may not know what you are referring to and may be left feeling confused or irritated. Instead of the above options, you should state “you said… about (coworker’s name’s) outfit. This comment is not appropriate in the workplace because…” Using this third option, you are being factual, avoiding assumptions, and explaining why the behavior was problematic. While the conversation may still be awkward, it is more likely to bring about positive change than the first two options.
Listen Well and Show Compassion:
Everyone wants to feel heard. Just as you want your message to be well received by your employees, your employees want to be understood by you. Depending on the nature of the difficult conversation, it may feel counterintuitive to provide your employee with an opportunity to explain his/her perspective, but doing so is important for seeking mutual understanding. Remember that considering your employee’s perspective and experience is not synonymous with buying into excuses for improper behavior.
In the Forbes article mentioned above, Forbes Coaches Councilmember Ryan Miller provides the following advice for having a difficult conversation with an employee: “Consider why they are acting the way they are or doing the things they are. If possible, find ways to address their wrongdoing without condemning or shaming them. When we meet people where they are at, they will be much more receptive to correction.”
It is important not to make any assumptions as to why an employee is behaving a certain way. Showing compassion and allowing an employee to share their perspective, experience, and needs will help you gain your employee’s trust and respect.
The SHRM article, “11 Tips for Talking About Poor performance,” by Jonathan Segal, echoes the importance of listening to employees. In addition to discovering what is needed for an employee to make improvements, you may also protect your organization from legal trouble. Segal writes, “As important as what the employee says is what he or she doesn’t say. If an individual says nothing and later claims he or she was denied a needed accommodation [e.g., for a disability or religious obligation], the prior silence may help the employer defend itself from the employee’s subsequent lawsuit.” For this reason, as well as those listed above, it is in everyone’s interest that you listen well during difficult conversations.
Clarify Expectations and Work Together for Solutions:
The purpose of any difficult conversation about employee performance or behavior should be to bring about desired change. In order to maximize the productivity of the conversation, you must make sure that your expectations are explicitly stated and understood by your communication partner. Likewise, it is important that you consider their perspective and make reasonable changes that will promote the success of your employee and organization as a whole. In “11 Tips for Talking About Poor Performance,” Jonathan Segal concludes by stating, “Remember, the primary objective of the difficult discussion is not to create a record that can withstand scrutiny. That is the secondary purpose. Rather, your first goal is to enable the employee to make the needed improvements so that both he or she and the organization can succeed.”
While it is often difficult to discuss poor performance or improper behavior with employees, it is important that these conversations occur. Discussing issues in a calm, factual, compassionate, and solutions-based manner will maximize the effectiveness of difficult conversations. Finally, a conversation goes two ways. Listen well to your employee during difficult conversations and consider how you might collaborate going forward to promote everyone’s success.
Giving your an employee a voice via an independent hotline can help you to learn about workplace issues before they lead to more difficult discussions. To learn more about the effectiveness of hotlines, see our article here.