10 Steps to Having Difficult Conversations with Employees
The time has come; you can’t put it off any longer. It’s the conversation most managers dread the most (well, there might be one that’s worse). These are the times when you’d almost rather go have a root canal. How do you deal with problem employees, or employees with a problem? Here’s a guide to make these types of conversations easier so they actually happen when they should!
Is it worth it? You need to determine if the situation, behavior or performance is truly an issue that needs addressing. Is a law being violated? Is a company policy being violated? Is it disruptive or damaging to other employees and/or the workplace in general? Or, is it simply annoying to you? Or annoying to the supervisor? Believe me; I have struggled with the answer to this question at times. Occasionally, we just need to let it go. However, if you’ve determined that it truly is something that needs to be addressed, then you need to do so without much delay. Waiting too long removes the urgency and diminishes the importance (if it was so important, why didn’t you deal with it right away?).
Investigate. (For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that a rigorous, formal investigation is not needed, as it would be in the event of a discrimination or harassment complaint, for instance.) This may well begin with your discussion with the supervisor, or whoever brought the issue to your attention. It should include a review of the employee’s file to determine if there is any record of prior instances of this nature, or of a similar nature. Interviewing other people may be necessary. Were there witnesses? Or, it may be the behavior or performance deficit is only evidenced through the interaction with the supervisor.
Consult your Policies/Procedures. How has this issue been dealt with in the past? Being consistent is important. However, do not confuse equal treatment with equitable or consistent treatment. Not every situation is exactly the same. You might take into account the tenure of the employee, the reason behind the behavior or performance issue. You may not want to treat a long-term employee with a solid past in a similar way as a newer employee with a less distinguished record.
Define the Problem. What exactly is the problem? Has the employee done something, or not done something? How does that impact your organization? Does it impact other employees, a project, a client? You’ll want to be clear about what the problem is, and how that differs from your expectation for performance or behavior.
What caused the problem? Before speaking to the employee, do you have an idea of what may have caused the unwanted behavior or performance problem? Could it be explained by a lack of training? Did the employee know she shouldn’t have done that or know what she should have done? This is a pretty important question to ask yourself, the supervisor, and possibly even the employee. If the answer indicates that the employee did not know she was violating a policy, or performing in a way that was outside of your expectations, it will affect the way you address the situation. If the employee has not received the appropriate training, should she be disciplined for that? Maybe not.
Know what you’re going to say, before you say it. Make notes; you want to be sure to address the situation completely, without omitting any important facts or observations. I often have a brief discussion with the supervisor before meeting with the employee to decide who will say what during the meeting. You want to present a united front and you want to make sure both you and the supervisor are in possession of the same information before your discussion with the employee. Agree on what corrective or disciplinary action may be imposed. Again, do you have a policy, or precedent that guides this?
Written or verbal? Is this the first time the issue has come up? How serious is it? The answers to those questions may determine whether you include a written disciplinary warning to the employee. If you choose to keep the discussion less formal, always document the discussion afterwards (take notes!). Memory isn’t perfect. You’ll want a record of the employee’s response and what actions will be taken to correct the problem.
So now you should be ready to have a discussion with the employee.
Be Prepared. First, accept the fact that this type of discussion will often be difficult and tense. People rarely feel they deserve to be disciplined or corrected, no one enjoys being punished. Be sure to conduct the discussion in a private area where no one else can overhear what is being said. Remember, this is between only you and the employee, and possibly the supervisor. Your purpose is to explain the issue in a straightforward and unemotional manner.
Anticipate possible reactions: anger, intimidation, tears, complaining, blaming, silence, and unwillingness to acknowledge the problem. Remain calm; redirect the discussion back to what needs to be accomplished, which is the employee’s understanding that a change in behavior or performance must occur.
Be Clear, Specific and Direct. Tell the employee what the issue is, specifically. Ask her to explain what happened and why it happened. Listen. You may actually get pertinent information that will inform how you proceed in this situation. There might have actually been a reasonable explanation, or you might find that your information is inaccurate. Allowing her to explain is reasonable and fair, and may help diffuse any hostility.
If you find that there was a good explanation, or that the situation is not what you believed, simply reminding the employee of your policies and your expectations may be sufficient and hopefully, everyone can go away happy!
If not? Explain why the behavior or performance was unacceptable (policy violation, disruptive or rude behavior, performance deficit, etc.), what the effect of that behavior or performance was and what you expect the employee will do to correct the problem. And most importantly, what the consequences of failure to comply will be. If you have a progressive discipline policy, remind the employee of the next step should that become necessary. However, a good standard line that I use often is failure to comply may result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.
Making sure your employee understands what may happen if future problems occur is really only fair. And, this can be important if any legal action, including just an unemployment claim, comes up. This is just one reason why documentation is so very important. If you’ve chosen to give the employee a written disciplinary warning, having her signature on it strengthens your position that she had been instructed to comply and informed of the consequences if she chooses not to comply.
The Finish. The end of the discussion should be a wrap-up. You can simply ask the employee if she understands what was unacceptable and what to do to correct the problem. I often find as polite a way as possible to say that I hope we won’t be meeting about this subject again!! It may be appropriate to agree on a follow-up time and further discussion. This can often be handled by the supervisor, with a report back to you for the record.
Points to Remember
Just the Facts: Describe behavior or performance; do not attempt to describe or characterize the behavior. Don’t ask if he’s sick, or stressed or having problems at home. More times than not, this will backfire on you. Other than trying to determine if a performance deficit is due to lack of training, or a simple lack of knowledge of policy, don’t try to figure out why someone behaves the way he does. You really don’t need to know, or want to know. What you need is for him to behave more appropriately or perform to your expectations.
It’s not an invitation or a negotiation. See above under Be Prepared. Ultimately, you are not requesting the change in behavior or performance, you are expecting it.
Deal with problems early. Unfortunately, a behavior problem or unacceptable performance usually will not go away if it is tolerated or ignored; in fact, it will most likely get worse. In the absence of being told otherwise, and without appropriate consequences, the employee may interpret your tolerance as accepting or condoning it, and this simply results in empowering him to continue. If you ignore the problem, you run the risk not only of encouraging more inappropriate behavior but also of potential legal liability, in the case of inappropriate behavior. The cost in lost time, productivity and morale of co-workers and supervisors is not worth whatever short term advantage you may feel in putting off such discussions. At the end of the day, it's so much easier and more productive to redirect a problem employee then to have to terminate him after the problem has grown intolerable.