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How to have difficult conversations with employees

Posted in Employers on Sep 19, 2018 by Keeley Edge

Conversations about poor performance, job losses or complaints against employees are never easy. Unfortunately, if these things aren’t addressed, it can lead to bigger problems. 

To help you deal with these things effectively, we’ve put together some tips on how to have difficult conversations with employees:

Don’t put it off

The sooner you address an issue, the better. If you put it off, the employee may hear rumours, become anxious about a situation or continue to act in an unacceptable manner. Don’t put off dealing with a problem. Arrange to speak to the employee as soon as possible.

Choose the right setting

Difficult conversations should be conducted in private, away from other colleagues and any potential interruptions. Ideally, you and the employee should be seated at the same level as this will make it feel less confrontational. You may prefer to choose a neutral setting rather than your office, depending on the topic of the conversation.

Get to the point

Don’t beat around the bush. Let the employee know straight away what you want to discuss. Making small talk simply delays the inevitable and can leave the employee feeling confused. Don’t leave the employee guessing what you want to talk about and don’t open with confrontational statements or blame. Try something along the lines of:

“As you know, we are making some changes to the structure of the company, and I wanted to talk to you about how that will impact on your role.”

“I’ve noticed that you are running behind schedule with the project and I wondered if you needed any extra support.”

“Your performance hasn’t been up to your usual standards recently, and I wondered if you were struggling with anything specific.”

Be prepared to listen

If you open the conversation in a non-confrontational way, explaining what you want to discuss, the employee is more likely to open up. If it sounds like you are blaming them or criticising them, they may become defensive and start passing the blame or making personal attacks on other colleagues.

Listen to what they have to say and respond to what you are hearing. Go into the conversation with an open mind. The employee may have a valid reason for a behaviour or action.

Stay calm

No matter how heated the employee gets or how angry a situation has made you, it is important to stay calm. Take a break from the conversation if needed so you can both collect your thoughts and process the information. Don’t let emotion get in the way of the facts or influence your judgement.

Don’t make assumptions

Don’t assume that you know the reasons behind any issue. The employee may have personal problems, an illness or challenges that you aren’t aware of. It could be that a training issue, a conflict with another colleague or a lack of communication has caused a problem.

Aim for a positive outcome

Before you enter the conversation, decide what you want the outcome to be. It might be to ensure that the employee understands the redundancy process, or it might be to set some developmental goals. You should always aim for a positive outcome. Although the employee may not always be happy with the situation, they should leave the conversation understanding the next steps and feeling as though they have been listened to.

And finally…

Remember that a conversation is a two-way communication. It’s important that you respect your employee and listen to them. Don’t interrupt them, don’t talk down to them and don’t make them feel as though you don’t value them. If you need more advice on communication, then check out our article on improving workplace communication.


At Key Appointments, we specialise in recruitment, and that often means some difficult conversations are needed. If there is only one vacancy available in a company and twenty people apply, that inevitably means there will be candidates that weren’t successful. As part of our recruitment services, we can help you deal with unsuccessful applicants in a fair, tactful and professional way.

If you’d like to find out more about our recruitment services or have a recruitment requirement you’d like help with, contact our friendly team.

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