4 tips for handling tough talks

No manager can escape it. Sooner or later you’re going to have to summon an employee into your office to address a performance problem or to have some other unpleasant conversation.

Talking to employees about performance problems, attendance issues or an upcoming layoff can be awkward and difficult, but there are steps you can take to make those types of conversations easier for you and your employees. Here are four tips to help you.


#1: Don’t procrastinate. The top three reasons managers avoid difficult conversations are concerns about causing stress for the other person, hurting the person’s self-esteem, and upsetting him or her. As hard as it is to approach an employee about a performance issue or to break the news of an upcoming layoff, do not put off the inevitable. The sooner you discuss a performance problem with an employee, the sooner the problem can be rectified.

Similarly, there are benefits to notifying employees about an impending layoff as soon as possible after you get the go-ahead from upper management to do so. For example, employees will have more time to prepare and you’ll give them accurate information before rumors and misinformation start to circulate.

#2: Plan ahead. Before having a difficult discussion, prepare your remarks. Be ready to clarify the issues in an objective way. You’ll want to describe the problem behavior and provide objective data to support your statements without personally attacking the employee. Also, be prepared to listen — without getting defensive — to what the employee says in response.

You’ll also need to create an action plan. When providing negative feedback about performance, be prepared to state the specific problem, and if applicable, ways to rectify it. For example, if the problem is attendance, you’ll need to tell the employee how many times he or she was absent or tardy, remind him or her of your company’s attendance policy, and explain the ramifications of not complying with it.

#3: Respect privacy. Meet with the employee in a closed-door office or conference room. It will be easier for the employee to hear negative feedback or bad news in private than in his or her cubicle or an open area where co-workers are likely to overhear the discussion.

#4: Consult with HR. Under certain circumstances, such as when you plan to terminate or discipline an employee, you should touch base with your human resources department first. HR can help ensure that the termination or other proposed discipline is justified and advise you on what you should — and should not — say during your conversation, so you avoid violating state and federal employment laws.

Most managers would prefer not to have a difficult conversation with an employee, but you can make the process easier by having the conversation in a timely manner before a small problem grows into a larger one — and likely leads to a more difficult conversation.

Planning ahead for what you want to accomplish during the meeting, creating an action plan, respecting the individual’s feelings and privacy, and getting input from HR can help make difficult conversations easier.