How to Hold a Difficult Conversation with an Employee

Take 7 Steps to Hold a Difficult Conversation with an Employee

Two supervisors discuss construction plans
Reza Estakhrian/Iconica/Getty Images

If you manage people, work in Human Resources, or care about your friends at work, chances are good that one day you will need to hold a difficult conversation. Difficult conversations become necessary for a variety of reasons. They're never easy to conduct and you risk causing workplace disharmony when you broach the subject with an employee.

Why You May Need to Hold a Difficult Conversation Examples

People dress inappropriately and unprofessionally for work. Personal hygiene is sometimes unacceptable. Flirtatious behavior can lead to a sexual harassment problem. A messy desk is not the sign of an organized mind.

Unreturned pop cans in pretty stacked masterpieces do draw ants. Food improperly stored in work areas does draw mice and their drippings are exceedingly unpleasant to the person who sits at the next desk.

Vulgar language is unprofessional. Revealing cleavage belongs in a club, a party, or on the beach. Leaving dirty dishes for others to wash is rude and unprofessional.

Have you encountered any of these examples of behavior that warrant a difficult conversation? They're just samples of the types of behavior that cry out for responsible feedback. Whether the perpetrator is a coworker, a reporting staff person, or maybe even, your boss, you owe it to them for workplace harmony and serenity, and workplace cleanliness and wellness to hold a difficult conversation.

These steps will help you hold difficult conversations when people need straight-forward, clear, professional feedback.

Steps to Provide Feedback in a Difficult Conversation

  • Seek permission to provide the feedback. Even if you are the employee's boss, start by stating that you have some feedback you'd like to share. Ask if this is a good time or if the employee would prefer to select another time and place. (Within reason, of course.)
    Giving the employee some control over how and when the feedback is received can make all of the difference in his or her receptivity to the difficult feedback.
  • Use a soft entry to begin your difficult conversation. Don't dive right into the feedback—give the person a chance to brace for potentially embarrassing feedback. Tell the employee that you need to provide feedback that is difficult to share. If you're uncomfortable with your role in the conversation, you might say that, too. Most people are as uncomfortable providing feedback about an individual's personal dress or habits, as the person receiving the feedback. This is normal and human. No one wants to make another person sad—or feeling bad. But, you owe both yourself and the other person the opportunity to make adjustments to behavior that is probably affecting their chances to succeed at work.
  • Do not give in to the temptation to amplify the feedback by making it from many, or excuse your responsibility for the feedback, by stating that a number of coworkers have complained. Often, you are in the feedback role because other employees have complained to you about the habit, behavior, or dress of the employee receiving difficult feedback. Do not give in to the temptation to amplify the feedback by making it from many, or excuse your responsibility for the feedback, by stating that a number of coworkers have complained. This heightens the embarrassment the person will experience and harms the recovery of the person who is receiving feedback.
  • The best feedback is straightforward and simple. Don't beat around the bush. Say, "I am talking with you because this is an issue that you need to address for success in this organization."
  • Tell the person the impact that changing his or her behavior will have from a positive perspective. Tell the employee how choosing to do nothing will affect their career and job.
  • Reach agreement about what the individual will do to change their behavior. Set a due date—tomorrow, in some cases. Set a time frame to review progress in other cases. Make certain that you and the person with whom you are holding the difficult conversation have an agreement.
  • Follow-up shortly after providing the feedback to check in on the employee's progress—and regularly thereafter if nothing changes or if additional nudging seems necessary. The fact that the problem exists means that backsliding is possible; the employee may also need further clarification of the feedback for complete understanding.
    Then, more feedback and possibly, disciplinary action are possible next steps if the employee fails to react positively to the difficult conversation.

You can become effective at holding difficult conversations. Practice and these steps will help build your comfort level to hold difficult conversations. After all, a difficult conversation can make the difference between success and failure for a valued employee. Care enough to hold the difficult conversation.