How to Have Difficult Conversations with Employees

Although inevitable, nobody likes dealing with employee complaints. Whether you're a new manager or an expert, we’ve simplified it into 4 easy steps.



Let’s face it - nobody likes dealing with employee complaints, especially when it’s about a coworker. Unfortunately, employee conflict is an inevitable part of managing employees. Whether you’re a new manager or an expert at having difficult conversations with a problematic employee, we’ve broken it down into four easy steps.

Let’s say you just received a complaint about Jim from one of his coworkers.  Before having any conversation with Jim, be sure to do your homework.  Don’t react based on this one complaint; seek input from others, gather facts, and take notes to provide specific examples.  If it warrants a conversation with him, be sure you have a quiet, private space available and an uninterrupted window to speak with Jim.  With everything now prepared, you’re ready to begin the process.

Step 1: Ask if you can give feedback

To begin a difficult conversation with Jim about his behavior, ask him in advance for permission. This shows respect and allows him an opportunity to prepare himself for the conversation. However, don’t drag it out by giving too much notice. Best practices suggest you have the conversation within an hour of asking this question.

Don’t say: “You’ve got a problem.” Or “Pay attention.”

Do say: “Jim, may I give you some feedback?” or “Can I share something with you?”

Step 2: Describe the specific behavior needing to be addressed

Focus on the problematic behavior, being as specific as possible, and not about Jim himself.

Don’t say: “I feel like you keep ticking people off.” Or “I’ve noticed people have been avoiding you.”

Do say: “Jim, several coworkers have told me that you’ve been difficult to work with, from interruptions to borderline inappropriate jokes. I heard about yesterday’s brainstorming session that ended early after you made fun of one of our long-term clients, a company owned by your coworker’s wife.”

Step 3: Explain the impact of this person’s behavior

Describe consequences (positive or negative) that have or may result from Jim’s behavior. Focus on the consequence that is most impactful to Jim.

Don’t say: "How come you can’t be more professional?"

Do say: “Here’s what happens with this kind of behavior at work. It spreads like wildfire and damages your reputation with coworkers and other team members who are expected to work with you in the future, not to mention hurts our relationship with clients.”

Step 4: Provide the “next steps”

This step is the most critical. Determine what you would like Jim to do differently and allow the solution to come from him, not you. After Jim proposes ideas, try to end on a positive note, building on his ability to rectify his behavior and commitment to reaching his goals.

Don’t say: “You need to be more attentive, less disruptive, and control your mouth.”

Do say: “What ideas do you have for preventing these situations from happening again?”

Effective manager and employee training can develop your team with important skillsets and enhance their overall loyalty to your organization. To schedule an onsite employee training, please contact your certified HR expert. Not a current Stratus HR client? Book a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly.

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