Back to blog

Having Difficult Conversations with Employees: Actionable Advice

Shutterstock_1017665245

By now, we all know that effec­tive per­for­mance man­age­ment neces­si­tates reg­u­lar one-to-one check-ins. This is because, at its core, per­for­mance man­age­ment is all about our employ­ees — giv­ing them the sup­port, feed­back and com­mu­ni­ca­tion they require to do their job well while pro­vid­ing the tools they need to succeed.

While reward and recog­ni­tion are, of course, impor­tant when it comes to moti­va­tion and per­for­mance, not all employ­ee coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions are going to be pos­i­tive and uplift­ing. Some­times, we’ll be faced with dif­fi­cult work con­ver­sa­tions, and though you might dread the very idea of hav­ing to rep­ri­mand an employ­ee for poor per­for­mance, these con­ver­sa­tions are nec­es­sary to keep employ­ees on track.

The good news is, when han­dled prop­er­ly, and when man­agers are armed with the appro­pri­ate train­ing, dif­fi­cult work con­ver­sa­tions can actu­al­ly be huge­ly ben­e­fi­cial with regards to an employee’s career and per­son­al devel­op­ment. In fact, it’s been shown that a remark­able 94% of employ­ees actu­al­ly want to have these con­ver­sa­tions — they see cor­rec­tive” feed­back as core to their career progression.

If, on the oth­er hand, dif­fi­cult work­place con­ver­sa­tions are han­dled poor­ly, the impact on employ­ee morale and vol­un­tary turnover can be dev­as­tat­ing. 55% of work­ers have, at some point, quit their jobs over bad man­age­ment practices.

When hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with staff, it’s not just about what you say but how you say it. Below, we’ll share our per­for­mance man­age­ment best prac­tices so your man­agers are armed with all the infor­ma­tion and moti­va­tion they need when it comes to hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with employees.

1. Have Reg­u­lar Con­ver­sa­tions with Your Employees

If you want your employ­ees to be recep­tive to cor­rec­tive feed­back, they need to have trust­ing and authen­tic rela­tion­ships with their man­agers built on reg­u­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion and effec­tive coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions. Dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with employ­ees aren’t going to go down well if they become accus­tomed to receiv­ing neg­a­tive feed­back (and only neg­a­tive feed­back) on their per­for­mance when­ev­er they meet.

If, on the oth­er hand, employ­ee and man­ag­er are able to build up a rap­port that is con­ducive to progress and devel­op­ment, employ­ees will be much more like­ly to wel­come con­struc­tive feed­back. Give employ­ees reward and recog­ni­tion when they deserve it. Show them that their effort and their hard work is being noticed — don’t just chime in when they put a foot wrong.

Con­sid­er intro­duc­ing reg­u­lar coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions instead of annu­al appraisals, stag­gered through­out the year at month­ly or quar­ter­ly inter­vals. This method allows man­age­ment to build a con­sis­tent under­stand­ing of their employ­ees’ per­for­mance — their highs and their lows. Reg­u­lar one-to-one ses­sions mean there is always scope to offer pos­i­tive feed­back on achieve­ments, strengths and pro­gres­sion. The result is that when a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion does occur, the employ­ee can under­stand that this feed­back is designed to help them to con­tin­u­ous­ly improve, and they will be more like­ly to engage with the feed­back and take it on board.

Such meet­ings also improve com­pa­ny-wide com­mu­ni­ca­tion, build­ing hon­esty and trust. This can give employ­ees the con­fi­dence to voice their own opin­ions, ask ques­tions and pro­vide answers, while giv­ing man­age­ment an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lis­ten to what their staff have to say.

All of these aspects help to pro­mote a work­ing envi­ron­ment where dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions can actu­al­ly be a pow­er­ful tool for change and growth. One-to-one meet­ings become more about col­lab­o­ra­tion and mutu­al benefit.

Of course, we can’t expect man­agers to be able to hold reg­u­lar per­for­mance reviews with­out the rel­e­vant guid­ance, so here’s a best-prac­tice per­for­mance improve­ment con­ver­sa­tion tem­plate, which includes rec­om­mend­ed dis­cus­sion prompts that will lead to more mean­ing­ful, per­­for­­mance-improv­ing conversations.

2. Don’t Patro­n­ise with the Com­pli­ment Sandwich

Pop­u­lar though this feed­back tool may be, as HR pro­fes­sion­als, we believe that the feed­back sand­wich” is actu­al­ly a sta­ple of bad man­age­ment tech­niques.

The con­cept is sim­ple: In order to not demor­alise a work­er, you offer them a com­pli­ment, pro­vide a crit­i­cism and fin­ish on a com­pli­ment. The prob­lem is, employ­ees know of this tech­nique. Most will recog­nise when you aren’t call­ing them in to give them good feed­back and that the pur­pose of this exer­cise is to spare them feel­ing inad­e­quate. There is also evi­dence to sug­gest that as you are end­ing with a com­pli­ment, your employ­ees might just for­get the neg­a­tive feed­back any­way — mak­ing the whole prac­tice a waste of time.

Your employ­ees deserve straight­for­ward talk with hon­esty. Offer­ing them com­pli­ments to dis­guise the fact they need improve­ment is a patro­n­is­ing prac­tice that implies your work­ers are unable to take on con­struc­tive crit­i­cism. As long as the cri­tique is valid, ben­e­fi­cial and bal­anced with reg­u­lar pos­i­tive feed­back, it does not need to be backed up by gold stars.

3. Make Your Con­struc­tive Feed­back Specific

There is noth­ing worse than skirt­ing around the truth. When it comes to feed­back, employ­ees want (and need) speci­fici­ty. Be clear and con­cise. Let them know what issues you are hav­ing with their per­for­mance and come pre­pared with exam­ples as an illustration.


Define what has gone wrong and how it can be cor­rect­ed in order to avoid con­fu­sion. Per­for­mance improve­ments can only occur if there is clar­i­ty around feed­back. Equal­ly, be pre­pared to give your employ­ees the tools they need to suc­ceed and improve.

4. Don’t Put off Hav­ing a Dif­fi­cult Conversation

Sec­ond only to clar­i­ty, time­li­ness is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion when hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with employ­ees. Feed­back, whether pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, is more effec­tive when deliv­ered in a time­ly manner.

When employ­ees per­form a task well, man­agers should recog­nise this effort and accom­plish­ment as imme­di­ate­ly as pos­si­ble to encour­age and moti­vate them. Equal­ly, when an employ­ee isn’t per­form­ing to stan­dard, it’s nec­es­sary to address the con­ver­sa­tion as soon as con­ceiv­ably pos­si­ble. The longer man­agers leave it to deliv­er con­struc­tive feed­back, the more bad habits will become entrenched. Fur­ther­more, if you take weeks or months to get back to an employ­ee with neg­a­tive feed­back, the employ­ee might think the cri­tique isn’t all that impor­tant — after all, how impor­tant could it be if it could wait this long to be addressed?

5. Don’t Base Argu­ments on Opinion

In order to give con­struc­tive feed­back — feed­back that tru­ly ben­e­fits your employ­ee — it needs to be fac­tu­al. You must be able to present them with infor­ma­tion that says, this is where you are going wrong, and this is how you can achieve more.”

If your prob­lems are based on opin­ion or per­son­al judge­ment, you’ll find you will encounter two issues:

  1. You are unable to pro­vide the con­struc­tive crit­i­cism need­ed to pro­mote change.
  2. Your employ­ee is able to argue against your crit­i­cism because you have no evi­dence or facts to sup­port your feedback.

Using soft­ware to give real-time feed­back as events occur, which can be done using a per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem like Clear Review, ensures you are build­ing up a body of fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion that can be used to sup­port more mean­ing­ful per­for­mance dis­cus­sions — both pos­i­tive and constructive.

6. Con­sult Oth­er Man­age­rs before Hav­ing Dif­fi­cult Work Conversations

Before you dive head­first into a dif­fi­cult work­place con­ver­sa­tion, first con­sid­er this: are the prob­lems you’ve iden­ti­fied actu­al­ly prob­lems? Is a dis­cus­sion in a one-to-one sce­nario the best way of deal­ing with the prob­lem or is it an issue affect­ing mul­ti­ple staff that could be dealt with in a more effec­tive way?

Oth­er mem­bers of man­age­ment are a pow­er­ful resource that should be utilised when con­sid­er­ing bring­ing in an employ­ee for a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion. Dis­cuss with them the points you would like to address and get their thoughts on not only whether or not they are valid but also how your col­leagues sug­gest they could best be covered.

A sec­ond opin­ion is always help­ful in a sit­u­a­tion like this. It helps ensure you are jus­ti­fied in your actions and that you are engag­ing the prob­lem in the most ben­e­fi­cial way.

7. Don’t React to Emo­tion with Emotion

Dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with employ­ees can include such sub­jects as pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, qual­i­ty of work and behav­iours. These type of con­ver­sa­tions, no mat­ter how they are phrased, can prompt an emo­tion­al response from an indi­vid­ual. It could be that you expe­ri­ence defen­sive behav­iour, anger, sad­ness or anxiety.

Crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of your dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion with an employ­ee is con­trol­ling your emo­tion­al response. If you react to this with an emo­tion­al response your­self, you jeop­ar­dise clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion and appro­pri­ate messages.

For exam­ple, if you engage in aggres­sive behav­iour, it can increase hos­til­i­ty, cre­ate new devel­op­ment bar­ri­ers and lead to an unnec­es­sary amount of pres­sure on the employ­ee. Con­verse­ly, offer­ing an over­ly sym­pa­thet­ic response may negate some of the sig­nif­i­cance of the dis­cus­sion you are car­ry­ing out.

To min­imise the risk of this, ensure that you are in a calm state of mind when going into the dis­cus­sion. If you are feel­ing angry or frus­trat­ed about a neg­a­tive event that has occurred, wait until your emo­tions have died down before dis­cussing the event with the employ­ee concerned.

8. Take Employ­ee Feed­back on Board

Your employ­ee might not be per­form­ing to your stan­dards or achiev­ing their SMART objec­tives as expect­ed, but is this all their fault? If your employ­ee has valu­able (not defen­sive) feed­back that could help improve not only their per­for­mance but also the per­for­mance of the rest of the organ­i­sa­tion, be recep­tive and lis­ten. Feed­back should work both ways. Employ­ees might have sug­ges­tions regard­ing shake-ups to your per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem or work­place process­es that could change your com­pa­ny for the better.

Equal­ly, if their feed­back implies they aren’t being giv­en the tools and train­ing they require to per­form their job effi­cient­ly, this is also some­thing that should be addressed as a mat­ter of urgency. This will show your employ­ee that you care about their suc­cess and you are invest­ed in their future at your com­pa­ny.

Per­for­mance improve­ment begins with authen­tic and trans­par­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Take your first steps to accom­plish­ing this at your com­pa­ny by enquir­ing about our lead­ing per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware. Our HR soft­ware will help you track goals, receive real-time feed­back and mon­i­tor progress for improved busi­ness and employ­ee growth.


Start Having More Meaningful Conversations With Your Employees

Performance improvement begins with authentic and transparent communication. Take your first steps to accomplishing this at your company by enquiring about our leading performance management software. Our HR software will help you track goals, receive real-time feed­back and mon­i­tor progress for improved busi­ness and employ­ee growth.

View a Demo Now

Don’t: Base Argu­ments on Opinion

In order to give con­struc­tive feed­back, feed­back that tru­ly ben­e­fits your employ­ee, it needs to be fac­tu­al. You must be able to present them with infor­ma­tion that says: this is where you are going wrong, and this is how you can achieve more.

If your prob­lems are based on opin­ion or per­son­al judge­ment, you’ll find you will encounter two issues with this:

  1. You are unable to pro­vide the con­struc­tive crit­i­cism need­ed to pro­mote change.
  2. Your employ­ee is able to argue against your crit­i­cism because it is not based on fact.

Using soft­ware to give real-time feed­back as events occur, which can be done using a per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem like Clear Review, ensures you are build­ing up a body of fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion that can be used to sup­port more mean­ing­ful per­for­mance dis­cus­sions, both pos­i­tive and constructive.

Do: Con­sult Oth­er Man­age­ment Before Engag­ing the Employee

Are the prob­lems you’ve iden­ti­fied actu­al­ly prob­lems? Is a dis­cus­sion in a one-to-one sce­nario the best way of deal­ing with the prob­lem, or is it an issue affect­ing mul­ti­ple staff that could be dealt with in a more effec­tive way?

Oth­er mem­bers of man­age­ment are a pow­er­ful resource that should be utilised when con­sid­er­ing bring­ing in an employ­ee for a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion. Dis­cuss with them the points you would like to address and get their thoughts on not only whether or not they are valid, but also how your col­leagues sug­gest they could best be covered.

A sec­ond opin­ion is always help­ful in a sit­u­a­tion like this. It not only helps you ensure you are jus­ti­fied in your actions but that you are also engag­ing the prob­lem in the most ben­e­fi­cial way.

Don’t: React to Emo­tion With Emotion

Dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion with employ­ees can include sub­jects like such pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, qual­i­ty of work and behav­iours. These type of con­ver­sa­tions, no mat­ter how they are phrased, can prompt an emo­tion­al response from an indi­vid­ual. It could be defen­sive behav­iour, anger, sad­ness, or anxiety.

Crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of your dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion with an employ­ee is con­trol­ling your emo­tion­al response. If you react to this with an emo­tion­al response your­self, you jeop­ar­dise clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion and appro­pri­ate messages.

For exam­ple, if you engage in aggres­sive behav­iour, it can increase hos­til­i­ty, cre­ate new devel­op­ment bar­ri­ers and lead to an unnec­es­sary amount of pres­sure on the employ­ee. Con­verse­ly, offer­ing an over­ly sym­pa­thet­ic response may negate some of the sig­nif­i­cance of the dis­cus­sion you are car­ry­ing out.

To min­imise the risk of this, ensure that you are in a calm state of mind when going into the dis­cus­sion. If you are feel­ing angry or frus­trat­ed about a neg­a­tive event that has occurred, wait until your emo­tions have died down before dis­cussing the event with the employ­ee concerned.

Man­age your employee’s per­for­mance, both the good and the bad, with Clear Review’s spe­cial­ist per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware. Track goals, get real-time feed­back and mon­i­tor progress for improved busi­ness and employ­ee growth.