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Having Difficult Conversations with Employees (Scenarios) - Actionable Advice
Blog //28-06-2018

Having Difficult Conversations with Employees (Scenarios) - Actionable Advice

by Advanced PR, Author

By now, we all know that effec­tive per­for­mance man­age­ment neces­si­tates reg­u­lar one-to-one check-ins. This is because, at its core, per­for­mance man­age­ment is all about our employ­ees — giv­ing them the sup­port, feed­back and com­mu­ni­ca­tion they require to do their job well while pro­vid­ing the tools they need to succeed.

While reward and recog­ni­tion are, of course, impor­tant when it comes to moti­va­tion and per­for­mance, not all employ­ee coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions are going to be pos­i­tive and uplift­ing. Some­times, we’ll be faced with dif­fi­cult work con­ver­sa­tions, and though you might dread the very idea of hav­ing to rep­ri­mand an employ­ee for poor per­for­mance, these con­ver­sa­tions are nec­es­sary to keep employ­ees on track.

The good news is, when han­dled prop­er­ly, and when man­agers are armed with the appro­pri­ate train­ing, dif­fi­cult work con­ver­sa­tions can actu­al­ly be huge­ly ben­e­fi­cial with regards to an employee’s career and per­son­al devel­op­ment. In fact, it’s been shown that a remark­able 94% of employ­ees actu­al­ly want to have these con­ver­sa­tions — they see ​cor­rec­tive” feed­back as core to their career progression.

If, on the oth­er hand, dif­fi­cult work­place con­ver­sa­tions are han­dled poor­ly, the impact on employ­ee morale and vol­un­tary turnover can be dev­as­tat­ing. 55% of work­ers have, at some point, quit their jobs over bad man­age­ment practices.

Dif­fi­cult Con­ver­sa­tions — Examples

When hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with staff, it’s not just about what you say but how you say it. Below, we’ll share our per­for­mance man­age­ment best prac­tices so your man­agers are armed with all the infor­ma­tion and moti­va­tion they need when it comes to hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with employees.

1. Have Reg­u­lar Con­ver­sa­tions with Your Employees

If you want your employ­ees to be recep­tive to cor­rec­tive feed­back, they need to have trust­ing and authen­tic rela­tion­ships with their man­agers built on reg­u­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion and effec­tive coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions. Dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with employ­ees aren’t going to go down well if they become accus­tomed to receiv­ing neg­a­tive feed­back (and only neg­a­tive feed­back) on their per­for­mance when­ev­er they meet.

If, on the oth­er hand, employ­ee and man­ag­er are able to build up a rap­port that is con­ducive to progress and devel­op­ment, employ­ees will be much more like­ly to wel­come con­struc­tive feed­back. Give employ­ees reward and recog­ni­tion when they deserve it. Show them that their effort and their hard work is being noticed — don’t just chime in when they put a foot wrong.

Con­sid­er intro­duc­ing reg­u­lar coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions instead of annu­al appraisals, stag­gered through­out the year at month­ly or quar­ter­ly inter­vals. This method allows man­age­ment to build a con­sis­tent under­stand­ing of their employ­ees’ per­for­mance — their highs and their lows. Reg­u­lar one-to-one ses­sions mean there is always scope to offer pos­i­tive feed­back on achieve­ments, strengths and pro­gres­sion. The result is that when a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion does occur, the employ­ee can under­stand that this feed­back is designed to help them to con­tin­u­ous­ly improve, and they will be more like­ly to engage with the feed­back and take it on board.

Such meet­ings also improve com­pa­ny-wide com­mu­ni­ca­tion, build­ing hon­esty and trust. This can give employ­ees the con­fi­dence to voice their own opin­ions, ask ques­tions and pro­vide answers, while giv­ing man­age­ment an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lis­ten to what their staff have to say.

All of these aspects help to pro­mote a work­ing envi­ron­ment where dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions can actu­al­ly be a pow­er­ful tool for change and growth. One-to-one meet­ings become more about col­lab­o­ra­tion and mutu­al benefit.

Of course, we can’t expect man­agers to be able to hold reg­u­lar per­for­mance reviews with­out the rel­e­vant guid­ance, so here’s a best-prac­tice per­for­mance improve­ment con­ver­sa­tion tem­plate, which includes rec­om­mend­ed dis­cus­sion prompts that will lead to more mean­ing­ful, per­­for­­mance-improv­ing conversations.

2. Don’t Patro­n­ise with the Com­pli­ment Sandwich

Pop­u­lar though this feed­back tool may be, as HR pro­fes­sion­als, we believe that the ​feed­back sand­wich” is actu­al­ly a sta­ple of bad man­age­ment tech­niques.

The con­cept is sim­ple: In order to not demor­alise a work­er, you offer them a com­pli­ment, pro­vide a crit­i­cism and fin­ish on a com­pli­ment. The prob­lem is, employ­ees know of this tech­nique. Most will recog­nise when you aren’t call­ing them in to give them good feed­back and that the pur­pose of this exer­cise is to spare them feel­ing inad­e­quate. There is also evi­dence to sug­gest that as you are end­ing with a com­pli­ment, your employ­ees might just for­get the neg­a­tive feed­back any­way — mak­ing the whole prac­tice a waste of time.

Your employ­ees deserve straight­for­ward talk with hon­esty. Offer­ing them com­pli­ments to dis­guise the fact they need improve­ment is a patro­n­is­ing prac­tice that implies your work­ers are unable to take on con­struc­tive crit­i­cism. As long as the cri­tique is valid, ben­e­fi­cial and bal­anced with reg­u­lar pos­i­tive feed­back, it does not need to be backed up by gold stars.

3. Make Your Con­struc­tive Feed­back Specific

There is noth­ing worse than skirt­ing around the truth. When it comes to feed­back, employ­ees want (and need) speci­fici­ty. Be clear and con­cise. Let them know what issues you are hav­ing with their per­for­mance and come pre­pared with exam­ples as an illustration.


Define what has gone wrong and how it can be cor­rect­ed in order to avoid con­fu­sion. Per­for­mance improve­ments can only occur if there is clar­i­ty around feed­back. Equal­ly, be pre­pared to give your employ­ees the tools they need to suc­ceed and improve.

4. Don’t Put off Hav­ing a Dif­fi­cult Conversation

Sec­ond only to clar­i­ty, time­li­ness is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion when hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with employ­ees. Feed­back, whether pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, is more effec­tive when deliv­ered in a time­ly manner.

When employ­ees per­form a task well, man­agers should recog­nise this effort and accom­plish­ment as imme­di­ate­ly as pos­si­ble to encour­age and moti­vate them. Equal­ly, when an employ­ee isn’t per­form­ing to stan­dard, it’s nec­es­sary to address the con­ver­sa­tion as soon as con­ceiv­ably pos­si­ble. The longer man­agers leave it to deliv­er con­struc­tive feed­back, the more bad habits will become entrenched. Fur­ther­more, if you take weeks or months to get back to an employ­ee with neg­a­tive feed­back, the employ­ee might think the cri­tique isn’t all that impor­tant — after all, how impor­tant could it be if it could wait this long to be addressed?

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5. Don’t Base Argu­ments on Opinion

In order to give con­struc­tive feed­back — feed­back that tru­ly ben­e­fits your employ­ee — it needs to be fac­tu­al. You must be able to present them with infor­ma­tion that says, ​this is where you are going wrong, and this is how you can achieve more.”

If your prob­lems are based on opin­ion or per­son­al judge­ment, you’ll find you will encounter two issues:

  1. You are unable to pro­vide the con­struc­tive crit­i­cism need­ed to pro­mote change.
  2. Your employ­ee is able to argue against your crit­i­cism because you have no evi­dence or facts to sup­port your feedback.

Using soft­ware to give real-time feed­back as events occur, which can be done using a per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem like Advanced Clear Review, ensures you are build­ing up a body of fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion that can be used to sup­port more mean­ing­ful per­for­mance dis­cus­sions — both pos­i­tive and constructive.

6. Con­sult Oth­er Man­age­rs before Hav­ing Dif­fi­cult Work Conversations

Before you dive head­first into a dif­fi­cult work­place con­ver­sa­tion, first con­sid­er this: are the prob­lems you’ve iden­ti­fied actu­al­ly prob­lems? Is a dis­cus­sion in a one-to-one sce­nario the best way of deal­ing with the prob­lem or is it an issue affect­ing mul­ti­ple staff that could be dealt with in a more effec­tive way?

Oth­er mem­bers of man­age­ment are a pow­er­ful resource that should be utilised when con­sid­er­ing bring­ing in an employ­ee for a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion. Dis­cuss with them the points you would like to address and get their thoughts on not only whether or not they are valid but also how your col­leagues sug­gest they could best be covered.

A sec­ond opin­ion is always help­ful in a sit­u­a­tion like this. It helps ensure you are jus­ti­fied in your actions and that you are engag­ing the prob­lem in the most ben­e­fi­cial way.

7. Don’t React to Emo­tion with Emotion

Dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with employ­ees can include such sub­jects as pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, qual­i­ty of work and behav­iours. These type of con­ver­sa­tions, no mat­ter how they are phrased, can prompt an emo­tion­al response from an indi­vid­ual. It could be that you expe­ri­ence defen­sive behav­iour, anger, sad­ness or anxiety.

Crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of your dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion with an employ­ee is con­trol­ling your emo­tion­al response. If you react to this with an emo­tion­al response your­self, you jeop­ar­dise clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion and appro­pri­ate messages.

For exam­ple, if you engage in aggres­sive behav­iour, it can increase hos­til­i­ty, cre­ate new devel­op­ment bar­ri­ers and lead to an unnec­es­sary amount of pres­sure on the employ­ee. Con­verse­ly, offer­ing an over­ly sym­pa­thet­ic response may negate some of the sig­nif­i­cance of the dis­cus­sion you are car­ry­ing out.

To min­imise the risk of this, ensure that you are in a calm state of mind when going into the dis­cus­sion. If you are feel­ing angry or frus­trat­ed about a neg­a­tive event that has occurred, wait until your emo­tions have died down before dis­cussing the event with the employ­ee concerned.

8. Take Employ­ee Feed­back on Board

Your employ­ee might not be per­form­ing to your stan­dards or achiev­ing their SMART objec­tives as expect­ed, but is this all their fault? If your employ­ee has valu­able (not defen­sive) feed­back that could help improve not only their per­for­mance but also the per­for­mance of the rest of the organ­i­sa­tion, be recep­tive and lis­ten. Feed­back should work both ways. Employ­ees might have sug­ges­tions regard­ing shake-ups to your per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem or work­place process­es that could change your com­pa­ny for the better.

Equal­ly, if their feed­back implies they aren’t being giv­en the tools and train­ing they require to per­form their job effi­cient­ly, this is also some­thing that should be addressed as a mat­ter of urgency. This will show your employ­ee that you care about their suc­cess and you are invest­ed in their future at your com­pa­ny.

Per­for­mance improve­ment begins with authen­tic and trans­par­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Take your first steps to accom­plish­ing this at your com­pa­ny by enquir­ing about our lead­ing per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware. Our HR soft­ware will help you track goals, receive real-time feed­back and mon­i­tor progress for improved busi­ness and employ­ee growth.

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