Two people at a table with birdseye view

5 Tips for Managing Difficult Conversations with Employees

Posted December 19, 2017 by Moses Balian in Managing Your Team
It’s delicate to tackle difficult conversations and sensitive topics with employees, but these tips can help you better manage such situations.

As a business owner or manager, there will be times you’ll have to tackle sensitive topics with employees.

Having a sit-down for a difficult conversation is probably the last thing you want to do, but it’s necessary for the overall health of your company. One employee’s disruptive behavior can often impact your whole team in negative ways, and addressing it head-on is often the best way to reach a resolution.

Psst… We’ve gathered our top resources on improving the health and wellness of your team. Download your free copy of the Employee Wellness Toolkit to access tips on supporting your team’s mental and physical health!

Difficult Conversations at Work

There are a number of behavioral issues that an employee might display that may require your attention. These issues can impact other members of your team or disrupt the office environment, and lower productivity within the company.

Some examples of disruptive behavioral issues include:

  • Poor hygiene or poor cleanliness in the office
  • Inappropriate dress
  • Absenteeism
  • Using offensive language
  • Acting rudely or mean to colleagues
  • Not cleaning up after a pet (in pet-friendly offices)

As uncomfortable as it may be to broach topics like these, there are ways you can prepare yourself for managing difficult conversations should they arise.

Build Trust Early

Tackling sensitive issues at the workplace starts from the ground up. A culture of trust and transparency within your company is an important building block that sets you up for success when talking to your employees.

Get four eBooks full of dozens of ideas to boost employee wellness.

Download the toolkit

According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 65% of employees surveyed said they trust the company they work for. That’s important because employees can be your business’ biggest advocates. Employees who trust in leadership are more likely to advocate for their company and its products and services.

Not only that, but when employees know you have their back, sensitive conversations become easier. If employees feel they can trust you as their employer or manager, they are more likely to feel you have good intentions in approaching difficult conversations at work.

Related post: 10 Affordable Ways to Improve Team Morale at Your Company

2. Check Your HR Policy

Before you schedule a meeting, talk to your HR person to help ensure that you’re approaching the conversation in a way that follows company policies. Be conscious of your words to avoid saying anything that may be discriminatory, and keep in mind that different cultures may have different norms or standards.

For instance, I knew a manager who once had to have a difficult conversation with an employee about his body odor. The employee had transferred to the U.S. from another country, where the norms around hygiene are very different. The manager had to tactfully explain U.S. hygiene standards and what was expected in the workplace.

If you don’t have an HR department — or you wear the HR hat yourself — you can seek guidance from other sources. Justworks customers can contact our HR support team, who will provide tips and advice. If you want to make sure your bases are covered in terms of legal issues, particularly regarding discrimination, consult with an attorney when necessary.

Related post: Make Effective Company Policies and Procedures With This New Guide

3. Bring it Back to Business

Always make sure you tie the personal issue back to a business or performance concern. After all, you’re not having a difficult conversation just to meddle in someone’s personal life. You’re bringing up the issue because it directly impacts the individual's or other employees’ ability to perform their jobs.

Behavior like swearing or being mean to a colleague isn’t grounds for a harassment claim. However, it likely violates your company’s core values. Emphasize to the employee that they aren’t representing the values of the organization, and that this is a key part of being on your team.

It’s also important to avoid conjecture or assumptions. Focus on objective observations, then follow up with a question to clarify. For example, "I noticed you’ve been absent a lot lately. I brought this up because our team values having you present and contributing. Is there anything I can help you out with?"

Focus on a job-related consequence, and work with the employee to brainstorm a plan to address it. Allowing the employee to come up with possible solutions to the problem is a good way to help them feel heard, rather than feeling chastised or talked down to.

4. Show Sensitivity

At the end of the day, cheesy as it may sound, think of the golden rule. How would you like to be treated if you were on the other side of the conversation? Try to put yourself in the employee’s shoes and imagine how you’d want your boss to talk to you about a sensitive or personal issue.

Choose a quiet place to meet in order to keep the conversation private. Aim to be respectful and compassionate, but at the same time, direct.

For example, choose a quiet place to meet in order to keep the conversation private. Aim to be respectful and compassionate, but at the same time, direct. Don’t leave room for misinterpretation. Use specific language as much as you can so the employee doesn’t feel attacked.

Related post: 10 Ways to Reduce Workplace Stress

5. Set Clear Expectations

It’s also important to be transparent about what your expectations are for the outcome of the conversation. If the issue goes beyond a personal concern and directly relates to poor job performance, make that very clear.

From that point, you may need to consider what disciplinary actions your company policy outlines, should the problem persist. If the employee doesn’t take steps toward the solution you agree upon, what will the consequences be?

Managing difficult conversations with employees is never easy. But by being clear, compassionate, and direct, you can help to ensure that everyone is on the same page and moving toward a solution.