Life can be full of difficult or awkward conversations. Unless you become a cave-dwelling hermit, there’s no way to avoid them! In business awkward or difficult takes on a whole other meaning. It is more difficult to tell someone they are hard to work with or not putting in enough effort than it is to discuss politics at Thanksgiving with your weird aunt.
You can only avoid addressing problems for so long without repercussions.
Make Difficult Conversations Easier To Have
The kind of conversations I am talking about are the big ones – the ones that take place behind closed doors. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve had over the course of my career. And no, they’re never easy. If you have any kind of empathy, they never will be. However, they’re a necessity and something managers must deal with.
In my work as a residential building products recruiter, I’ve learned the value of seeing both sides of every situation. No one wants to make their manager upset. And no one likes getting called on the carpet.
It helps to remember I liked this person enough to hire them. So, I certainly must like them enough to have an upfront and professional conversation & give them tools to be successful in their job. Remember this is about helping someone and fixing a bad situation. You aren't out to hurt feelings and you might even be doing them a favor.
So, here is how you can prepare and make it less painful.
The first step is to make sure you are prepared. Put together specific examples of the behavior. Let's say the issue is neglecting customers. Document a few times this has happened. Then, you can answer “When have I ever let down customer X?” by saying “Last Tuesday customer X called in to say you forgot their order and this was the 3rd time this quarter.”
I like to plan it out in my head, although if you prefer to sketch out a script on paper, that’s fine too. Just have a plan in mind and an idea of how you want the conversation to go.
If you are writing the employee up, make sure you have all your paperwork completed. If you feel like you need it, secure a 3rd party observer. A manager from another area or an HR person both make good options. If there is a performance plan that will be implemented, make sure you plot out the next steps.
Try to anticipate employee objections or items they might need. A box of tissue is never a bad idea.
Starting The Conversation
I am a huge fan of the “sandwich” technique – one negative sandwiched between positive points. So, I try to start out a little softer and ease into the talk. If you aren't totally done with their behavior or this is the first conversation, start out very casually. Something like, “I just wanted to talk to you about something I noticed. I’d like to discuss it before it becomes a big problem, etc.” and then lay out your concern.
Instead of pulling them in for a chewing out, you are being neutral and hopefully starting a conversation which results in a solution. Yelling at someone is probably not going to get them to talk about the situation freely, so don't wait until you are exasperated.
No matter how well you handle your end, you can't control their reaction. Your employee might get upset, embarrassed or have their feelings hurt. They may not necessarily handle it well, but as a leader, you can’t let yourself get upset, even if they’re angry. Let them have a few minutes to compose themselves so you can move on.
Getting To The Heart Of What Is Going On
After they have gotten over their initial reaction, you can start to talk about what is really leading to the issue. Most of the time the bad behavior is just a reaction to something. Maybe they don't have the training they need, maybe they are having an issue with alcohol or depression or maybe there is something going on outside of work.
No matter what is going on, solutions begin with addressing it openly.
If they aren't open about what is causing the problems, you might need to do a little gentle probing. You don't want to ask anything illegal, but you could say “I know this behavior isn't how you normally act. Is there anything going on in the office that I need to be aware of?” If they say no, you might want to say “Is there anything going on outside of work that you need help with, or can you help me understand your actions?”
Whenever you are having a difficult conversation, there is always some expected outcome. If it is bad behavior, it needs to stop immediately. If an employee is performing poorly, you need to have a path for the employee to correct their issues. You should ideally have an idea of these before you go into the conversation, but realize you might need to adjust based on what they share.
Cover whatever the expectations are and make sure the employee fully understands what is expected. If there are metrics that you need to have them meet, make sure they know what the numbers are. Give some idea of how they will go about meeting their goals.
Lastly, try to end the conversation on a positive note. Often, it can be a simple “You are a great employee that I value and I want to make sure we can get back on track.”
What To Do If It Goes Sideways
Some reaction is normal and you shouldn't hold a little outburst of tears or even anger against the employee. You may have been thinking about and planning for this conversation – but they probably haven't. People rarely react well to being caught off guard or reprimanded. You can't expect them to have a pleasant reaction.
I like to give them a few minutes of quiet to compose themselves and then move on.
However, if they are abusive or threatening or just can't control their reaction, that is a different story. If you fear for your safety, get someone else in the room – preferably security. If you think they just need a little perspective, you could say “Your reaction is very extreme for the conversation we have had. I would like to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I need you to calm down for us to continue talking.”
That will probably snap them out of it. If it doesn't you could make the decision to either send them home without pay until they calm down or proceed with termination. I use my best judgment based on past behavior. If you do send someone home, I would make it really clear that their job is on the line if they can't straighten out their behavior.
When They Need To Be Done
Sometimes, you go into a conversation knowing you will be terminating the employee. Other times, their behavior or reaction makes it a necessity to let them go.
Either way, make sure you are in the right frame of mind before the conversation. I usually try to look at things from the employee perspective to help me maintain my composure. I ask myself “Would I want a job that I’m just not any good at?” or “Do I want to be the person no one wants to work with?”
If you go into a conversation knowing it is leading to a termination, try to be brief and get to the point. Have your documentation ready, have a witness and know what the next steps are going to be. You don't have to be mean or rude, but you also don't need to spend 45 minutes buttering them up.
If you think the conversation might go quite poorly and may lead to firing, be prepared for that outcome as well.
It’s never going to be easy to have these talks, I won't lie to you. But, you can make them less difficult by being mentally prepared, planning ahead of time and opening a caring and two-way conversation. Don't ignore things until you can't help but lose your cool. You won't get the results you want at all by yelling. You don't want to be that kind of boss and no one wants to have that kind of manager!