Uncomfortable Conversations

It is always fun to tell employees how wonderful they are and it is not fun when you have to share that they are not performing at the required levels. Both messages carry enormous value and must be conveyed.

How many times have employees fallen short of goals, dressed inappropriately, or frequently call in late with truly believable excuses? Do you let the issues eat at you until a bigger problem comes along that diverts your attention? When the employee’s issue(s) resurfaces you get mad and your first impulse or wish is to terminate the person. But wait, you have nothing documented. The employee may be completely unaware of the problem and could very likely sue you. So the cycle repeats. 

To sit across the desk from someone and tell them, to their face, that they are not executing your standards is not pleasant and can be painful. It is an uncomfortable conversation and that is why it is hard. The key to success with employees is your ability to have these uncomfortable conversations and have them in a timely manner. 

Communicating with your employees is essential.  Here are some ideas on how to relieve some of the pain:

  • Have the conversation following the action (even if it is small) as soon as reasonably possible.  Timeliness is the key.
  • Keep the conversation simple, on point and brief. There is no need to repeat the problem over and over. Believe me, the employee heard you the first time and repeating the issue just becomes demeaning.
  • Remember, this is not your problem. Most likely the employee is not purposefully seeking out a way to make your life miserable (however, this does happen too). By removing your personal feelings on the issue you can address it more squarely without feeling like you have been hurt or attacked. Attack the problem, not the person.
  • Listen to your employee’s perspective – to a point.  Just like there is no need to repeat the issue, you also don’t have to listen to your employee repeat their excuses. Once they state their side of the story you can stop the dialogue. If they continue, simply say “I did hear your comments and I have noted them. There is no need to repeat them.  Thank you.” 
  • If the situation is sensitive have a neutral third party in the room. Document the conversation.
  • There are three parts that make up all of us:  a parent, an adult, and a child. The goal in these meetings is to remain in the “adult”. It is easy to turn into the “parent” and give demands while using such phrases as “have to” and “supposed to” (imagine the parent wagging their finger at a child). Employees will often go to their “child” during meetings – cross their arms, pout and resort to silence. By remaining in your “adult”, regardless of employee reaction, the meeting will go more smoothly. “Adult” phrases to keep in mind are “mediator” and “reasoned statements.” Maintain attentive, non-threatening expressions. 
  • Avoid asking employees how they feel about the situation.  Stay on point and leave emotions out. Focus on the facts. 
  • If you are completely unsure of how to handle a situation get some advice. If you don’t have a Human Resource Department or PEO representing you, utilize various resources in town like independent human resource consultants or information via the web, like the Society for Human Resource Management.
  • Once the meeting is over, let it go! But make sure it is documented. See our blog from June 12, 2012 for tips on documentation.

While these ideas should help to ease some of the discomfort caused by uncomfortable conversations, there is no perfect way to move forward other than to make sure you try and keep the communication open. 

Written by Celeste Peterson, PHR, The Applied Companies Director of Operations. Peterson has been in the PEO industry for over 7 years and in the human resources field for over 15 years. She has a BA from UNR, earned her PHR (professional in human resources) designation in 2004, has been involved in numerous non-profit organizations and held multiple board positions in Nevada.