If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid those truly awkward conversations with employees, let’s hope it’s not because you’re practicing avoidance. Conducting difficult discussions—specifically about behavior or performance—is critical to the success of every employee, and your own success overall, so don’t run from them.
Instead, follow this advice from Jonathan Segal, writing for the Society for Human Resource, to make the best out of an uncomfortable situation:
1. Address issues immediately. If you wait and say something like “This has been going on for months,” employees will wonder why you didn’t point it out sooner. The quicker you address an issue, the quicker both you and the employee can put the situation behind you.
2. Check your assumptions at the door. Don’t ever imply intent on the employee’s part. Negative comments, such as “I just don’t think you are trying,” tend to elicit a defensive reaction from some people. Others may tune you out altogether. It’s best to believe that employees have only the best intentions until they prove otherwise.
3. Forget the small talk. Engaging in casual conversation, joking around and discussing nonwork-related issues undermines the negative feedback or information you are about to share. Keep the conversation focused on performance, and save the small talk for another time.
4. Don’t speculate or investigate. Saying things like “I know you are going through a hard time with your divorce, and that is why your attitude has changed” or “How are you managing the divorce?” can upset employees—or worse—land you in court. While you can be sympathetic, it’s best to steer clear of being too personal. Instead of digging for details, just ask “What I can do to help?”
5. Stop making excuses. Trying to lessen the blow of the feedback with “I know it’s not your fault” or “I/the company are partially to blame” usually backfires. Employees won’t take accountability for their actions—or commit to making needed changes.
In addition: Get agreement. Don’t let this one-on-one meeting end without deciding on a definable course of action. Get agreement from the employee and discuss the consequences.