10 Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations with Difficult Employees

When you have a difficult employee, it may be tempting to ignore the problem and hope the issues go away. But chances are, it will only get worse. The longer you wait, the more the employee may have a negative impact on your entire team’s morale, their overall productivity, and the work environment. The following tips can help you face your fears and address the problem so you can get back to managing and growing your business.

  1. Timing is everything.
    Try not to reprimand in the heat of the moment. That’s when you’re likely to say something you’ll regret. Once you’ve had a chance to cool down and collect your thoughts, schedule a one-on-one meeting with the employee. This should be a two-way conversation to allow the employee an opportunity to explain themselves.
  2. Focus on the facts and check your emotions at the door.
    Getting negative feedback is never easy, and the employee is likely to take it personally. To prevent this, focus on the facts and give specific examples of when the employee failed to live up to the job’s expectations. Explain how these issues affect the rest of the team and the employee’s future in the organization. Having fact-based evidence leaves less room for misinterpretation.
  3. Consider bringing in a witness.
    Unless you’re planning to have a quick chat, it’s a good idea to have a witness present. This is especially important when dealing with policy violations, behavioral issues, or anything that may require disciplinary action. The witness should always be an HR representative or another manager, never a peer of the employee.
  4. Get to the root of the problem.
    Never assume you know why an employee is causing problems or underperforming. It’s important to take the time to really understand what’s going on. Maybe your employee is unclear about his or her role or your expectations. They may be overwhelmed or even under-challenged. The problem could also be of a personal nature. Only when you understand what the real issue is can you find an appropriate solution and move forward.
  5. Be positive.
    Set a positive tone and don’t just tell them what they’re doing wrong. Give positive examples of things they can do to improve and provide them with the tools they need to realize that improvement. We recommend using STM’s Start/Stop/Continue tool. This tool provides a way for you and your employee to organize and define the problems, as well as what’s going well. It helps take the emotional edge off the conversation. Your employee should leave the meeting feeling they can do better and committed to meeting their goals.
  6. Work on a solution together.
    Don’t just dictate a solution. Working with your employee to develop a solution shares ownership and provides motivation for them to improve. As you develop a plan, outline clear, measurable goals and specific actions they should take to meet the objectives. Provide additional training or support as appropriate.
  7. Be consistent.
    It’s essential that you hold all employees to the same performance standards. Have the same conversation with everyone who’s slipping.
  8. Keep it confidential.
    Any employees who are not directly involved in the problem should not be aware of the situation. If another employee comes to you “confidentially,” make sure they understand you cannot guarantee complete confidentiality. Depending on what they disclose, you may have a responsibility to take action or speak to others.
  9. Follow up.
    Once an improvement plan has been established, create a schedule of regular meetings to follow up on your employee’s progress and reiterate your support. Be sure to give specific feedback and address challenges. Again, STM’s Start/Stop/Continue tool can be very helpful in structuring these meetings.
  10. Recognize and reward improvement.
    If your employee is improving, tell them! Reward them by taking them to lunch, send them a hand-written “good job” note, or give them a personal and sincere gift to thank them for their hard work.

We hope you never have to deal with a difficult employee. But if you do, we hope the advice above will help with solving your issues. Using STM’s Start/Stop/Continue tool on a regular basis with every employee is a great way to solve problems before they become “career ending discussions”. Our tool establishes the two-way nature of the discussion, removes emotional barriers, and invites employees to speak freely about their disappointments or communication problems. Unfortunately, not every problem employee is motivated to improve. If you feel you’ve exhausted every effort to get them back on track, it may mean it’s time to let them go. Holding on to them could have a toxic effect on the rest of your business and damage your ability to attract and retain great people.

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