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What's the Best Way to Have a Difficult Employee Conversation?

What's the Best Way to Have a Difficult Employee Conversation?

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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

Two of the most difficult workplace conversations are providing negative feedback during a performance review and terminating an individual’s employment. Early in my career as an HR professional, I experienced both of these scenarios.

The first lesson I learned was “no one wants to be the bad guy and give derogatory news.” But I’ve always believed that people will accept what you have to say if you are honest, authentic and empathetic.

I have no problem respecting such individuals and I believe they are entitled to hear why they are in their current situation. In other words, if you give it to them straight, they will respect you as a person regardless of the news.

How Can You Handle Employee Problems?

Before meeting with the employee, develop a plan of action for the conversation. One of my techniques was to research each situation to ensure that the action being taken was the appropriate solution and that all alternatives had been exhausted.

Even if you have to give bad news to any employee, you must explain how the organization tried every opportunity to reach a different outcome. You must communicate that you understand and fully support the decision that has been made. Never say, “Well, the company is making me do this.”

Nine Critical Rules to Follow

What I do might not work for you. So if you are not sure where to start, the online human resources leadership site Insperity Staff has developed nine critical rules to follow in developing a plan of action:

  1. Conquer your fears – Most people don’t like to deal with conflict. Determine why the conversation needs to be held and what role you will play in it.
  2. Do your homework – Find out all the facts about the situation, so you can provide accurate information during a conversation with that employee.
  3. Be positive – It’s not the end of the world.
  4. Leave your emotions at the door – Keep the conversation factual and watch how you phrase your wording.
  5. Find the right setting – Set the tone for a difficult conversation by finding a place that is non-threatening and away from public view. Make sure you can hold a private, uninterrupted conversation.
  6. Can I get a witness? – If possible, have a third party present, preferably someone who can be objective when needed.
  7. Be consistent – Hold all employees to the same standard. There is an organizational grapevine and employees know when certain co-workers receive favoritism. In addition, you don’t want to open yourself to legal proceedings by displaying disparate treatment.
  8. Keep it confidential – Provide only the information that is needed.
  9. When all else fails – Be prepared and anticipate possible scenarios, especially if the employee has a negative reaction to the feedback.

A Negative Employee Performance Review Should Include Ways to Improve

When one door closes, another one might open. I like to give people a sense of hope. If you must deliver negative feedback on a performance review, offer ways that the employee can improve. If the person must lose his or her job, urge him or her to think about the next path of the career journey.

Employees can grow out of a job or a company. It doesn’t make them bad people and we shouldn’t treat them as if they have leprosy. Rather, encourage them to evaluate their situation and determine if “they are on the right bus in the right seat at the right time.”

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.

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