How to Make Those Tough Conversations Easier

Every manager has to confront it sometime: the tough conversation. Someone on your team is not performing well, is exhibiting inappropriate behavior, or is otherwise negatively affecting others on the team.

It could be something as straightforward as chronic lateness, or as difficult to discuss as personal hygiene. A messy desk. Loud phone conversations. Inappropriate language. Provocative clothing.

Whatever it is, people have been complaining, and it is up to you to see that the behavior is corrected—both for the morale of your other employees and, ultimately, for the success of your department or your company.

But having that conversation is hard. How can you make it a little easier, and more effective, too? Here are a few tips.

1) Don’t put it off. The longer a behavior persists, the more difficult it will be to address—and the greater the damage to your relationship with others on the team who expect you to enforce fairness and a positive work environment.

2) Don’t take the person off-guard. Tell him or her that you have some difficult feedback to deliver, and ask if it is a good time to talk. This will allow your employee to brace herself. The element of surprise can increase defensiveness. Spare him embarrassment as well; invite him into your office or some other space where others cannot hear.

3) Be direct. Be very specific in describing the problematic behavior or performance, and make sure you explain how it relates to the success of the company or the quality of the workplace. Make it clear, too, if this is an issue that may be holding the employee back in his career.

3) Address the behavior, not the person. There is a world of difference between “You’re a slob” or even “you need to clean up your act” and “Your workspace needs tidying, and it is important that you dispose of food containers immediately after lunch.”

Be sensitive to the possibility that the issue may stem from cultural differences. This may affect how you talk about the issue, but don’t allow yourself to be intimidated into waffling. It is fair to expect all employees to adhere to cultural norms in a work environment.

4) Don’t pass the buck. You may be tempted to “share the blame” by reporting to the employee that others in the office have complained. Resist this; it will only make the person feel ashamed and angry, and will cast the issue in a personal light.

5) Let them talk. Give the person a chance to respond, and listen to his or her response.

6) Set expectations. Tell the employee exactly what changes you expect, and set a time frame for him to meet your requirements. Make it clear that there will be a consequence for any failure to improve, whether it is the loss of a job, a demotion or a reassignment.

7) Recognize achievements. Notice and (discreetly) celebrate improvement, even if it is incremental.

8) Give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve done something hard for the good of your staff—and very likely for the employee as well.

When you’re looking for workplace solutions, turn to the staffing firm that provides thoughtful and holistic workplace consultation. We can put our years of experience to work for you.