9 tips for having difficult conversations with your employees

Having difficult conversations with employees

Sometimes, employees stink. We’re not trying to be flippant – it’s just a fact. Apart from work performance issues, employees will sometimes have a bad case of body odour, or a habit of stinking up the office with leftovers. Saying something about these kinds of situations (including employees divulging TMI during a separation or family drama), however, can be very challenging for bosses and colleagues.

The thing is, if this behaviour is having an impact on results or team dynamics, you need to address it. Having difficult conversations are a part and parcel of employee management.

To help you avoid heated confrontations (or tears), here are nine tips for having difficult conversations with your employees or colleagues.

  1. Don’t delay.

Like the Nike motto, “Just do it.”

Take your role and responsibilities seriously. If this conversation is yours to have, have it – especially if this issue is having an impact and an influence on the team at large. Delaying it will only make matters worse.

  1. Prepare for all possible scenarios.

Before you have a difficult conversation, consider all the possible reactions. Shift your perspective to your employee’s point of view, and ask yourself: “How would you feel if you were in their shoes?”

Be empathetic, sensitive, and sensible, and imagine a calm, respectful conversation with a positive outcome. Rehearsing is also a good idea. You might prefer to wing it, but rehearsing is an effective way to be massage your message, and be ready for all scenarios.

At the very least, talk it out with a trusted peer – before sitting down with your employee.

  1. Set up a private, face-to-face meeting.

Depending on the behaviour, request an in-person meeting, or a casual coffee for a chat.

Being face-to-face can soften the blow, with the message coming from a friendly, open, and caring person – you.

If you or your employer works remotely, videoconferencing is another option. Telephone calls are less effective, and email and text messages should be avoided completely – without a clear tone of voice, there are too many possible interpretations. Avoid them.

Keep in mind, though, that simply sending a meeting invitation can create some paranoia, especially if you’re not in the habit of doing so. The employee may wonder why you want to meet with him or her. To ease fears, tell them that the purpose of the meeting is to have a quick catch-up on tasks and objectives.

Above all, though, be discreet. You don’t want the whole team to know that you’ve “having the talk.”

  1. Decide if a third person should be present.

Depending on the employee’s personality, his or her past, or the behavior, some conversations are better between people of the same sex. You might also want the conversation documented by a witness. Take the time to consider your employee – what would help put them at ease?

Should you enlist the help of a team member, plan the discussion and each person’s involvement. 

  1. Choose your words carefully.

Remember that your conversation is a business discussion. Be honest but respectful.

Avoid inappropriate language (imagine you are talking to a member of the press – you would not start swearing), and focus on the person’s behavior or performance. This, of course, should always be framed on the impact it has on business.

Your goal is for the person to be aware of the problem, and then to fix it. You don’t want to shame or embarrass them.

  1. Tell them how difficult this is.

Honesty, as they say, is the best policy, so use your discomfort to begin the conversation: “What I have to say is difficult.”

Starting this way makes it clear that you find no joy in pointing out this issue; you’re instead looking to help them, and to find ways to improve performance and productivity.

It might be blunt, but the honest, direct approach, is the best way to address the issue head-on.

  1. Objectively outline the impact of the behaviour.

Just like a reporter that states only the facts, present the person’s behaviour and their consequences on the team and the business. Is something they’re doing having an impact on productivity? Is the office gossiping and creating a tense environment? Have timelines been affected in any way?

If so, make it clear to your employee. Making sure they understand the impact this is having brings the problem into focus, and underscores why they need to fix it.

  1. End with thanks.

You’d be surprised how effective it can be to end your conversation with: “Thank you for your understanding.” Not only does this act as a nice, professional way to close the conversation, it also reminds them that the onus is on them to now change.

Of course, saying thanks may not always be possible. In those cases, aim for a handshake at the very least.

  1. Pass it off to human resources (but think twice first).

If, after reading the eight previous guidelines, your gut is still telling you “Don’t have that talk,” don’t do it. Passing this off to a superior or HR is a safe decision, especially if you’re unsure about what to say, or how this person will react.

As a former human resources manager, I understand that this option is very tempting – you don’t want to be perceived as harassing or intimidating someone. Still, I encourage you to have that talk, one-on-one. Pushing it up to a superior or laterally to HR professionals may leave your employee feeling isolated and excluded.

Although difficult conversations may be uncomfortable for both parties, they don’t have to create conflict. Having the courage to address a certain behaviour could be an “ah ahhhh moment” for an employee, and an opportunity for a better work relationship.

Don’t be afraid!


About Julie Blais Comeau

Julie Blais Comeau is Chief Etiquette Officer at etiquettejulie.com. She is a bilingual professional speaker and the author of Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility. Julie empowers organizations with the skills that develop business opportunities and allow employees to shine at work. A sought-after media collaborator she has been featured on CBC, CTV, Reader’s Digest, TVA and Radio-Canada, among others.


See also:

Managing conflict in the workplace

5 things to never (ever) say to your team



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