It’s never easy to approach a conversation about an employees’ behavior, work quality, insubordination, or termination, but conversations like these are necessary at times.
Some managers tend to handle difficult conversations by not handling them at all, which lets unproductive or harmful behaviors escalate and problems get worse.
Understanding the most effective ways to handle difficult conversations with employees will give you more confidence in approaching sensitive issues and help you keep your workplace on track.
Types of difficult workplace conversations
There are several types of difficult workplace conversations you might find yourself having at some point during your career. Here are some examples:
- Behavior issues
- Dress code violations
- Interpersonal conflict issues
- Policy violations
- Work space cleanliness
- Excessive absences
- Customer complaints
- Coworker complaints
There are many more types of difficult workplace conversations not on this list – strange things can happen at work, as you know! Below, we’ll show you how to handle difficult conversations with employees that won’t escalate into conflict.
How to Handle Difficult Conversations with Employees
Before the conversation
First, consider the purpose for the conversation. What do you need to discuss with your employee? What do you want to accomplish as a result? What is the ideal outcome for the discussion? Are you approaching the topic in an inflammatory way? Do you have any unchecked assumptions that need to be addressed first?
Starting the conversation
The way you start the conversation is just as important as the way you handle it. Decide where you’ll have the conversation, whether it’s in your office, via Skype, or somewhere neutral. You should start the conversation by being direct and honest about your purpose, not by beating around the bush.
For example, “Hi Steve, I asked you here because I wanted to get more information about the incorrect totals on the reports last month” is much better than saying “Uhh, hey Steve, how’s it going?” to an employee that’s already wondering why they’ve been asked to meet with you like this.
During the conversation
Understand that difficult conversations challenge people because they involve a lot of button-pushing. It’s normal for people to get defensive or start panicking when they feel they’re “in trouble” with the boss, but keep in mind that people also tend to match the other party’s attitude during discussions like this.
That’s why it’s important for you to project a sense of calm fairness, not anger, judgement, or pity. Be firm but polite, professional but caring. If you can stay rooted in a calm center, you will increase your odds of having a successful interaction that ends ideally.
After the conversation
Once you’ve had the difficult conversation, you might feel like you’ve washed your hands of it, but that’s not the case. Good leaders make sure to follow up after difficult conversations – unless they involve termination – to touch base with the employee and get back to “normal” or to further spur a new change that they’ll be making.
Stop by your employee’s desk the following day or later that week and thank them for their professionalism during the conversation or meeting. It can be an important step in making your work relationship stronger after a challenging conversation.