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Having Tough Conversations with Employees

By John Almond - November 1, 2012

(Second in a series)

In my previous article, I offered a few suggestions when you are faced with the need to have a difficult conversation with an employee. While there are certainly no silver bullets, it is critical for such conversations to be planned carefully. In most situations, the goal is to correct a problem and develop a plan for improvement. Whether the employee is disengaged, unhappy, or underperforming, having an honest conversation for which you are properly prepared can certainly help the cause.

Here are a few additional suggestions for having those tough conversations:

  1. Anticipate a possible display of emotions. If an employee becomes emotional and begins to have difficulty speaking, you may have to stop for a few minutes. I strongly advise against postponing the meeting, unless you believe that there may be psychological issues, and an expert is needed. If the employee is unwilling to acknowledge the problem or answer questions, try asking open-ended questions to get the employee to open up. If the employee is unwilling to acknowledge the problem or to resolve the issue, document the discussion, and schedule a follow-up meeting. The purpose of the follow-up meeting is to provide the employee with one more opportunity to discuss and resolve the situation.
  2. Discuss specific consequences. The employee should be told the specific consequences of failing to improve his or her performance, and these potential consequences should be put in writing. If the situation involves underlying mental or physical issues, do not attempt to solve them by yourself. A human resource expert or possibly the school district’s attorney could best help you to approach these issues.
  3. Don’t forget to document. Any and all discussions with the employee should be documented. After coaching or a verbal warning of possible consequences, a follow-up letter can be sent to the employee outlining the discussion and expectations.
  4. Schedule follow-up meetings. Once you and the employee come to terms with the issue and agree on what actions need to be taken to show improvement, schedule regular follow-up meetings to assess progress. At these meetings, determine whether or not the employee is actually making progress and document what has occurred since the last meeting. Above all, continue to make your expectations clear.
  5. Give the proper support. As you move through the process, make certain to give the employee enough time to truly turn things around. Emphasize to the employee your expectation that they communicate with you on issues that aren’t being resolved or when help is needed. In addition, be sure to give positive feedback and encouragement when it is warranted.

Having difficult conversations with employees is never fun, and they are certainly anxiety producing for both parties. Unfortunately, they are sometimes a necessity. An unhappy or disgruntled employee will almost never turn a situation around unless that employee is confronted and forced to face the issue.

Last but not least, as the employer, it is very important to stay as positive as possible throughout the process. After all, sometimes an employee can truly benefit from having an honest conversation about an issue, and, in the end result, can actually turn the situation around.

(To read the first article in this series, click here.)

Editor's Note:  John Almond is a Senior Advisor with the educational consulting firm Total School Solutions (TSS).