Difficult Conversations With Employees – 5 Key Steps for Managers and Supervisors

Having difficult conversations is an energy sapper for anyone that manages people.  Maybe you delay it and the problem goes away?  Or you have the conversation and it ends up being more problematic? 

We can always get LUCKY – there may be times where a staff member who is not performing, the employee who is constantly making sarcastic comments and the sales person who continues to miss KPIs – will over time just “fix up” their performance or attitude. 

However, relying on luck in managing staff in a business is dangerous and on many occasions can backfire causing all sorts of grief from good staff leaving, overall profit and revenue taking a “hit” and in some extreme circumstances a business going into liquidation.

We completely understand, for many managers and supervisors having difficult conversations take time and energy and it is so much easier to delay the conversations and ignore the problems.  As lawyers for employers we see everyday what delaying the conversations eventually become they can manifest into serious problems including but not limited to Workers compensation claims for ill health and absenteeism, workplace bullying claims and even general protections matters. 

5 Tips

Here are 5 key steps to ensure that difficult conversations can lead to hopeful improvement, undertake a measure of procedural fairness and at the very least mitigate your risk:

  1. Be prepared – this can be slightly different depending on the type of conversation.  If it is a performance issue, ensure you have written down in detail the issues you wish to discuss, make note of any breaches or what the effect of the underperformance has on the workplace and other staff and ensure you understand any legal obligations you may be under.  There may well be policies that set out both your rights and obligations as well as an employee in regards to performance based and conduct based discussions such as performance management policy or code of conduct.  It is also worth checking employment contracts and certified agreements (if any). 
  2. Consider logistics – if the worker has communication problems such as English being their second language consider using an interpreter.  In an office environment, ensuring you have the discussion in a quiet room where comments cannot be overheard will be integral.  If you are not in an office environment, can you find somewhere quiet or more secluded to talk.  
  3. They may get “defensive” so explore – in a difficult conversation an employee may get defensive and may well find some of the issues put forward to them such as comments about their attitude, demeanour or work ethic hurtful – try exploratory questions.  Try open ended first questions first such as “Why do you feel that the comments in regards to your attitude is incorrect?” or “Please tell me in your own words your version of the events?”  The more questions leads to more answers and the more answer means more information.  More information is important to understand what next steps to take.
  4. Write down notes – Always keep notes of the discussion – this is integral as decision makers potentially will be called upon by commissions, tribunals and courts to recall discussions they had with employees in unfair dismissal, general protections, discrimination or workplace bullying claims.  Contemporaneous notes are incredibly important as evidence and the more detailed the better.  Keeping electronic versions of notes such as scanned copies of handwritten notes, typing them up by email and sending them to a supervisor/manager or the human resources team or simply keeping them on the employee file are all useful ways to keep notes. For those on sites – keep a diary where you can take notes of conversations had with employees.
  5. Agree on outcomes and give timelines – Once the discussion is over and there is a plan of action of agreed outcomes, firstly ensure they are agreed to and secondly timelines are provided.  For example, if the employee has been running late to work – have a timeline for improvement.  Having an agreed outcome and a due date for improvement and next meeting will ensure that all parties are on the same page as to what will happen next.

So the 5 key steps are:

  • Be prepared
  • Consider logistics
  • Explore when they get defensive
  • Write down notes
  • Agree on outcomes and timeline

These are key steps to keep in mind when having that difficult conversation with an employee. 

NB Lawyers – lawyers for employers have helped thousands of Employers, supervisors and managers with difficult conversations and are only a phone call away if assistance is needed.

Written By
Jonathan Mamaril
NB Lawyers – Lawyers for Employers
[email protected] 
+61 (07) 3876 5111

Jonathan leads a team of handpicked experts in the areas of employment law and commercial law who focus on educating clients to avoid headaches, deal with problems before they fester and when action needs to be taken or a mistake is made mitigate risk and liability.