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Having difficult conversations is never easy, but most leaders will have them at some point in their careers. Whether it’s addressing an employee about unprofessional dress, having an unpleasant body odor, or disciplining poor performance, it’s the manager’s responsibility to tackle sticky issues. Although these types of conversations are uncomfortable, there are ways to make them productive and as painless as possible.

Often managers fear tough conversations won’t go well, and the employee will become upset. However, many employees don’t always know or understand how their behaviors affect others around them. They may end up appreciating the honesty and concern.

Be Prepared

This conversation is not one to have in the spur of the moment. Ask yourself some questions beforehand. What is the purpose of having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? Have your proof and specific examples gathered. Having fact-based evidence leaves very little room for interpretation. People are far less likely to resist when facts are presented. Make sure you have a policy that you can refer to in relation to the offense. Think of the questions they might ask and have answers prepared. The more you prepare, the better the meeting will go.

Do You Need A Witness?

Sometimes conversations with an employee should involve a witness. Behavioral issues and policy violations are common discussions that warrant having a witness. If you believe the employee will respond adversely, having another person in the room is advised. An on-site HR representative or another manager is recommended. Never choose a peer of the employee. Be mindful of the employee’s privacy.

Whether you have a witness or go it alone in your discussion, you should follow up the conversation with a brief email to the employee. You need only to recap the issue and solutions or expectations discussed. For example, “Thank you for meeting with me today, Larry, to discuss personal hygiene matters. I appreciate your commitment to following our company policy regarding this matter.”

Be Positive and Straightforward

Begin your meeting with a positive tone. If you begin in a negative tone, your employees are more likely to get defensive and argumentative. You can soften the delivery by telling the employee you need to provide feedback that is difficult to share. It is also best to be direct and get to the point quickly. Most of the time the person knows that a critique is coming so don’t beat around the bush. Say something along the lines of, “I am talking with you because this is an issue that you need to address for success in this organization.” Give them examples of positive things they can do to improve. Tell the person the impact that changing his or her behavior will have from a positive perspective. Point out the positives the employee does well in their job. It’s important to make employees feel they are important to the company.

Manage Your Emotions

You also want to keep your tone even and professional. Don’t let your emotions take over. If you are in a situation that involves an employee you care greatly for or work closely with, take a step back and remove the relationship from the equation. Look at things from a fact-based standpoint. Remind yourself that the more in control you are of your emotions, the better you’ll be able to deliver the message.

Offer a Solution

After you have clearly explained the reason for the conversation, you then need to offer suggestions to improve. For instance, if the conversation is about unprofessional dress, provide a list of acceptable outfits. If your conversation is regarding poor performance, set goals and make sure the employee has the tools to succeed. Set follow up meetings and provide feedback during those times.

Allow the Employee to Ask Questions

Allowing questions helps the employee process what’s happened and allows you to clarify details of the conversation. It’s important that the employee completely understand the issue and solution to correct the offending behavior. You may ask clarifying questions in order to check for understanding.

Some additional tips and suggestions:

  • Know and return to your purpose at difficult moments.
  • Don’t take verbal attacks personally. Help the employee come back to center.
  • Don’t assume the employee can see things from your point of view.
  • Practice the conversation with a friend before holding the real one.
  • Mentally practice the conversation. See various possibilities and visualize yourself handling them with ease.


With practice, you can become more comfortable and more effective when holding difficult conversations. Sometimes it can make the difference between success and failure for a valued employee. Contact the professionals at Resourcing Edge,, to help guide you through these conversations.

HR Services Partner Linda Bisca has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience in the areas of compliance, employee relations, and special projects. She specializes in creating win-win scenarios for employees and employers alike.

Shellie Rich

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