HR Basics: Dealing with Difficult Employee Conversations

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Jul 10, 2015

When most of us think about leadership, we see ourselves empowering people, bringing them together, inspiring your team to do great work. And certainly those high points make the calling to leadership feel fulfilling.

But, as with any field, there are elements that are more challenging to get through.

High on that list is talking with employees about difficult topics: poor performance, co-worker conflict, accusations of wrongdoing, firings and layoffs.

Nobody looks forward to these talks, but you can prepare yourself and help them go as well as possible with a few principles:

1. Be prepared

Make sure you have the fullest possible version of the story before you sit down. If possible, quantify the information into data points; for example, if an employee’s been chronically late, have on hand the number and percentage of late days in the past month, the number of hours lost, and information on any consequences like missed delivery targets.

If you’re dealing with sensitive personal information, accusations of illegal activity or topics that are likely lead to litigation, you may want to talk with an attorney or HR specialist beforehand about how best to proceed.

2. Be direct

When the time comes, resist the temptation to start off with small talk and ease into the topic. If anything, that just makes it more awkward.

Practice beforehand what you’re going to say and especially how you’re going to begin: “Jerry, I want to talk with you about the quality of your work. You’ve missed three important deadlines in the past month, and two clients have called me to complain you’re not responding to their contacts.”

3. Be specific about outcomes and consequences

Before meeting, set out a specific list of goals, timelines, and consequences if they’re not met: “Today begins a new probationary period. I’m going to meet with you weekly over the next six weeks to review your performance. If your error rate doesn’t drop back below three percent by then, your employment here will end.

To the degree possible, try to foster a sense that you’re working together to solve a problem, not that you’re handing out punishment. Express willingness to provide resources to help if they’re within your reach.

4. Show compassion

Give the person on the other side a chance to respond, and listen closely even if you’re very confident of your facts.

If it’s a firing or layoff, arrange things so the person has a chance to work through the initial emotion privately and can go through the termination process with as much dignity as possible.

5. Don’t engage in games

If there’s genuinely new information that comes out of the meeting, by all means take it into account. But otherwise, don’t rise to take the bait if you receive a response that’s angry, sarcastic, or manipulative.

Be prepared to say, “Thanks for your input, but we’re done here.”

6. Keep the team at the forefront

People talk and compare notes, so make sure that your handling of discipline is impeccably consistent. Handle communication directly and forthrightly to avoid rumors.

Remember, anyone can lead in good times, but it’s in the difficult situations that your skills can really shine — and can do the most good for those you’re leading.

This originally appeared on the Jeremy Kingsley blog.

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