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Confronting Difficult Employees

How to Have Tough Conversations with Employees

Your employee was twenty minutes late to their shift on Monday and now it’s Thursday and it’s 15 minutes after they were supposed to arrive. They’re not around. You like this employee and have enjoyed their contributions. How can you have a conversation with them that will get them back on track and in the company’s good graces? This is a moment where knowing how to communicate effectively with staff and confronting difficult employees can help you get your job done.

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Confronting difficult employees is almost always a topic of interest to HR managers and business owners. Great people make a company successful long term and how you talk to your staff about issues like layoffs, pay cuts, and behavior issues can help you retain your top employees. How do you improve communication in the workplace and set up a strategy that permeates throughout the entire company? Answer: Train your managers well.

In the first of our series of posts on tough conversations with employees, we’ll cover the role of the manager, the role of HR and tips for training managers to have tough conversations with employees. In upcoming posts, we’ll review a basic conversation script that can be used in a number of situations.

The Role of the Manager in Managing Difficult Staff

The manager’s job is to maximize performance from their team to achieve the organization’s goals. This task sounds simpler than it really is. The best managers are well trained in the skills they need to create success. Especially new managers need guidance, since some were great individual contributors who don’t know how to drive results from others. They need to learn the necessary skills and steps to maintain employee motivation.

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In general, people don’t leave companies because of low pay or a long commute. They leave because of bad managers. So, if nothing is more critical than making sure managers are effective in managing talent at your organization, how can HR support this goal?

The Role of HR in Building Manager and Employee Relationships

Here are four approaches HR practitioners can take to get their managers managing better, especially when it comes to tough conversations with employees.

1. Train managers in the basics of giving effective feedback. Few managers are really excellent at giving feedback to employees. It’s a tricky skill to learn. Basic information and training can improve managers’ skills greatly.

2. Train managers in the basics of employment law so they know what they don’t know. The laws that govern how employers manage their employees have exploded in the past couple of decades. While that creates greater job security for HR practitioners, it means that HR professionals must work hard to stay up-to-date on employment laws. And, they need to know when the laws apply to the organization and then train managers about the laws. Realistically, managers are not going to take the time or have the interest to learn about these laws in depth. One of the best approaches an HR practitioner can take is to train managers to recognize words that could get them into trouble. Let's call these words "triggers." That way, they know when to stop a discussion and escalate it to a higher level of management or to HR.

3. Ensure that the organization is free from discrimination and retaliation. While you cannot prevent or totally control every sticky situation your company gets into, your organization should trust that you, the HR practitioner, are an advisor to the senior leadership when issues come up. You may not be involved in the action taken, but you can make sure that organization’s leaders are aware of their options and informed about the law.

4. Champion the programs and systems that support the organization’s most valuable resource, people. HR professionals improve efficiency, support employee retention and create high levels of employee engagement that drive overall success. An HR professional’s goal is to get and keep the right people on staff. Therefore, you must be available to your managers with helpful advice when they run into a challenging situation with an employee.

Teaching Managers How to Communicate Effectively with Staff

Later posts will get into more detail on how to train your managers to speak to employees. In the meantime, here are some tips that can help overall.

1. Keep it simple. Simple is best. Seek to make the message to the employee as simple as possible.

2. Steps are easiest to remember. It’s helpful for managers to know the points that they plan to cover in a difficult conversation. They can still add some personal style along the way, but because the conversation may drift to side topics, knowing the key points of the conversation keeps it productive when emotions get high.

3. Practice makes perfect. Your managers may not like the process of role playing, but this training method can pay great dividends. Make them practice out loud. The first few times this process may be challenging. Encourage your managers to stay focused on their skills and to keep trying again and again.

4. Use the three step method. Remind your managers that there are three steps to giving feedback.

1. Prepare for the meeting. Managers should not go into a meeting with an employee without a clear idea of what they are going to talk about and what their desired outcome is.
2. Deliver the feedback. And, do so in a respectful way.
3. Follow-up. Managers need to follow up with the employee after a feedback session otherwise they’ll make the situation worse. Their initial feedback will seem unimportant, rather than sending the message that change is needed.

5. Know when to consult with HR. Managers need to know to make HR aware of the following situations:

  • Absences, leaves or medical conditions that may qualify for federal protection. That way, any action taken to correct employee behavior can be done within the bounds of federal law.
  • Whistleblower protection, or situations where an employee makes claims about the company. When employees are being disciplined, they often want to point a finger and blame their situation on something besides their own actions.
  • Claims of unfair treatment based upon protected class. HR must know if an employee feels that they are being discriminated against based upon a protected status, such as age, race or gender. Managers can be trained to say, “That’s a very serious claim and based upon the fact that you made that statement I’ll need to contact HR because that is an allegation that deserves more attention.” HR can then immediately take appropriate action, like an investigation and asking further questions rather than ignoring the situation.


Stacey Carroll

Director of Customer Service and Education

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Stacey Carroll
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