8 Tips for Handling Tough Employee Conversations
ThinkHR Chief Knowledge Officer Laura Kerekes writes a monthly “Innovative Workplace” column for Rough Notes, a publication that has been serving the insurance industry since 1878. Enjoy her October column on how to handle tough employee conversations.
We all get cold feet when it comes to addressing difficult issues with colleagues in the workplace. It’s stressful, and you just can’t help but think of all of the ways that a well-meaning conversation could go sideways. You worry about the longer-lasting effects of a damaged work relationship but know that you must correct problematic work performance or behaviors before they get out of control.
Uncomfortable conversations about personal behaviors and poor performance are tough, and putting them off just allows the problems to worsen. Use your knowledge of the situation and put together the right combination of management skills to tackle the talk now.
Imagine these all-too-familiar employee situations that you know you need to address but don’t think you have the wisdom (or can’t muster up the courage) to handle:
- The “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” situation. For the past several months, one of your team members has been underperforming, and it has dragged down your business unit’s productivity. The underperforming employee has shared that she has a number of family and financial issues and is trying her hardest to stay focused on work because she needs this job and loves the company. She lives your company values and is well-liked by her co-workers. Everyone feels bad for her situation and has been picking up the slack, but they are growing resentful of the extra work with no end in sight. You’ve been trying to be kind by avoiding the issues as her performance has slid from bad to worse. It is now impacting your company’s overall performance and degrading the employee relations climate.
- The “Bad Behavior, Great Performer” situation. One of your employees consistently exceeds his production goals at the expense of the company culture. He is highly critical of others, issues demands from other work teams without regard for their other priorities, and employees grudgingly drop everything to deliver on impossible deadlines because they believe that they cannot push back. It’s all about him and his performance. He is regularly recognized by the company leadership for being the top producer, and employee complaints to management about his behavior have not been addressed. While production goals are good, your company culture is sinking and you’re starting to see increased absenteeism and turnover among your staff.
Don’t Overlook the Signals
In addition to employee resentment and lost productivity, there’s a bottom-line impact for not tackling these tough talks at the right time and in the right manner. The key is to pay attention to the signals and not feed the problem with neglect.
In the first scenario, trying to be a kind and sensitive boss worked in the beginning but is now backfiring. At first the team worked together to help their struggling colleague, but without a plan to fix the problem in the longer term, it created three serious issues for you to fix: employee morale, lack of confidence in your leadership for missing the signals of “team fatigue,” and not having a plan to keep the team on track — all resulting in lost productivity.
The best thing you can do in situations like these is to work with the struggling employee to develop a plan that puts her back on track or helps her consider alternatives if necessary. This type of conversation requires sensitivity along with some firmness because you need to steer the conversation from the personal issues back to actionable work deliverables.
In my experience dealing with circumstances like the second scenario, typically management allows the top performer’s behavior to go unchecked for fear that if the employee is corrected his performance will suffer or he will quit the company. While there may be an element of truth to those concerns if the individual is unwilling to accept constructive feedback, the bigger fear should be for the company’s culture, employee erosion of trust and confidence in the leadership team, and the motivation, performance, and retention of the other company employees if the behavior is not changed.
Often the top performer continues to use the same work patterns that have been successful and isn’t even aware of the impact on others. Addressing the issues sensitively so that he can make personal changes has the potential to create even higher levels of team unity and performance.
What Signals are You Looking For?
For starters, watch your team’s interactions with each other, be sure that each team member understands their key performance objectives, and take the time to “check in” regularly and solicit feedback about the job, work team, and overall company with each employee.
Having direct conversations on a regular basis helps you nip problems in the bud and shows your employees that you care about their concerns. You also learn each other’s communication patterns so that when it comes time to have that awkward or difficult conversation, you both are less uncomfortable.
Groups where team members work remotely increase the chances that signals can be missed. When telecommuting is coupled with the use of instant messaging and other forms of communications in place of direct face-to-face or voice communications, the sender’s well-intentioned messages may get lost in translation. Be sure to follow up any electronic communications with a direct phone call or meeting.
Eight Tips for Tackling These Conversations
Strategies to manage conflicts with subordinates are not fully taught in business classes. More common are courses addressing project conflicts, where the focus is on fixing the “what” of the problem, such as resetting priorities, changing business plans, or repairing broken systems or processes. There are fewer tools focusing on how teams communicate and repairing broken business relationships. Preparation and planning are critical to get what you need from these hard conversations while keeping your relationship with the employee intact.
- Focus your own viewpoint first. If you start out thinking the conversation will be really hard, you’re going to be more anxious. Chances are the conversation will be harder. Instead, position this discussion as a means to enhance your relationship while helping your employee develop better skills, understand company priorities better, or work more positively on the team. Think about how you can deliver the difficult talking points with honesty, courage and fairness.
- Recognize the emotions you will be feeling. Are you disappointed in this employee? Angry about the problems they’ve caused? Scared that your conversation will damage your work relationship? Put your negative feelings aside and consider how you will frame the problem you need to discuss and how your employee may feel. Try to come at the discussion with consideration and compassion for their feelings and frame the conversation with a desire for the employee’s success. “John, we need to have a hard conversation today, and I’m feeling anxious because I want you to win. Please know that I am invested in your success and will work with you to make that happen.”
- Be intentional in planning the conversation, but don’t script it out so that your delivery sounds mechanical. Some business consultants suggest drafting a script and considering alternatives based on the employee’s reactions. In my experience, these conversations never go completely according to plan, and scripted conversations feel artificial. Instead, write down key points and plan as if you are just having a simple conversation with a colleague. Be prepared to provide specifics and pace your conversation so that you take time to gauge your employee’s reactions to your comments. Your employee may react defensively if you provide vague statements. Instead of saying, “Sue, people in the company are telling me that you are difficult to work with and have a bad attitude,” frame the issue with examples, such as, “Sue, I am concerned because I’ve noticed in the last four team meetings you arrived late and weren’t prepared with project updates. As a result, both Joe and Sam missed their deliverables, and you didn’t let any of us know in advance that the timeline was slipping.”
- Recognize that you own part of the problem, too. Your goal is to have a conversation between adults where each owns some responsibility for the issue and solving the problem. This takes the conversation from finding fault to finding solutions. “Rob, I realize now that you have too many priorities and I didn’t provide you with the resources to deliver on the project. I also realize that I avoided addressing the problem at the beginning of the project and let it go too long without discussing it with you.”
- Outline what you want changed. Don’t just discuss the problem; describe the end result you envision. Discuss realistic and achievable outcomes and be willing to offer resources and assistance as appropriate.
- Ask the employee for his or her viewpoints. The last thing you want is a one-sided conversation. Slow the pace of the conversation, observe the employee’s reactions to your comments, and ask for feedback and suggestions for solving the problem. You may learn new information about what may have caused the problem, and the employee could offer even better solutions than you thought possible. Throughout the conversation, look for areas of consensus and acknowledge the employee’s feelings and concerns. That shows respect.
- End the conversation on a positive note with an action plan. Thank the employee for working with you through the difficult discussion. Acknowledge that it was a tough conversation and express appreciation for the employee’s professionalism as you both work towards a better outcome. Develop a going-forward action plan to solve the problem. “Tom, this was a hard talk, and I know it wasn’t easy for you. You provided some good ideas for fixing the issue, and I appreciate your professionalism. You can do this, and I am here to help you win.”
- Close the loop and follow up. Give the employee a little time to reflect on the discussion, but no more than a day or two. Follow up and ask the employee if they would like to have another discussion to cover any additional information or clarification. Put the agreed-upon action plan in writing, schedule regular status meetings, and recognize progress and improved performance. Taking these steps demonstrates your respect for the employee and desire for them to succeed.
Keep the Conversation Going
Great managers keep the conversation going to ensure team members are aligned and supporting each other to create a healthy corporate culture and successful company. When problems arise, they have the tough conversations to get things back on track. Handling these discussions well takes courage as well as empathetic listening and communications skills. Pay attention to the signals, develop your communications plan, and you’ll be more confident in tackling your next tough employee communications challenge.
How Can ThinkHR Help?
ThinkHR customers have access to a full suite of tools to help them address employee performance issues. Log on to your account for information on addressing discipline, compliant employee discipline policies for your employee handbook, or to contact a member of our Live advice team.