HR Tip of the Week

Posted on  |  Performance management

3 Difficult Employee Conversations and How to Handle Them

Having difficult conversations with employees comes with the territory of being an employer. Whether it's about a pay freeze, a denied promotion, or a violation of company policy, these conversations must be handled consistently and with care.

General Guidelines:

Here are some general guidelines for handling these types of conversations:

  • Be proactive. Take steps to help prevent problems from occurring in the first place. Use an employee handbook and regular staff meetings to clearly communicate workplace rules and procedures so that employees know exactly what is expected of them.
  • Address the issue promptly. If you have reason to believe that an employee violated company policy, immediately gather the facts and meet with the employee as soon as possible. Addressing the issue early can prevent it from becoming worse, leading to even more difficult conversations in the future.
  • Meet with the employee in private. Schedule a conversation between the employee and a manager or HR representative who has the training and experience to handle difficult conversations. Have the conversation face-to-face and in a private location. Consider having another manager sit in as a witness to the conversation.
  • Be empathetic but straightforward. Let employees know that you understand the information you deliver may be difficult to hear, but don't dance around the issue. If an employee violated company policy, clearly tell him or her exactly what the problem is, what steps he or she must take to correct it, and the consequences of failing to do so.
  • Give the employee an opportunity to speak. During the meeting, give the employee an opportunity to comment and ask questions to ensure he or she fully understands the issue. Note: Document any disciplinary action, including the date the action was taken, and have the employee acknowledge it in writing.

Scenario 1: You are violating our dress and grooming policies.

Poor hygiene can have a negative effect on clients, customers, and co-workers. Consider these guidelines for addressing this type of issue:

  • Be tactful but direct. Set the stage by letting the employee know that you plan to discuss a difficult topic. In some cases, the employee may be unaware that a problem exists and may need specific information about what the problem is. Provide an explanation of the issue, treating the employee with respect. Use factual terms and avoid judgmental language. Cite your policy (if applicable) and describe how the employee's conduct is affecting the business.
  • Understand workers' rights. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws, employers may be required to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, and for an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, unless it creates an undue hardship on the business. For example, an employer that requires employees to be clean-shaven might need to make an exception for individuals who maintain beards as part of their religious practices.
  • Never assume you know the cause. Hygiene problems may be caused by a variety of factors, including medical issues, cultural differences, mental health issues, personal problems, or poor grooming habits. Never assume that any one of these factors is the cause and be mindful of nondiscrimination laws when addressing a hygiene issue.
  • Set expectations and document. At the end of the meeting, clearly communicate your expectations and next steps. Document the conversation, what actions need to be taken to address the issue, and the potential consequences of failing to rectify the issue. If an accommodation is the solution, document the discussion with the employee, the possible options for accommodation, and how the accommodation will be implemented. Once implemented, periodically check in with the employee to ensure that the accommodation is effective.

Scenario 2: We cannot provide pay raises this year.

If you typically give annual pay increases but are unable to, consider these tips to help manage employee morale:

  • Set expectations. While employees may be accustomed to annual pay raises or bonuses, explain that they are not guaranteed each year. Avoid language that implies that employees automatically receive a bonus or increase and communicate the factors the company considers before awarding pay increases.
  • Use a multi-pronged approach. When a pay freeze is necessary, be straightforward with employees about the difficult situation the company is facing. Consider announcing the freeze as early as possible in a company-wide meeting or other communication and then follow up in one-on-one meetings with each affected employee.
  • Explain that you considered other options. Acknowledge that the decision was difficult for the company and that you considered all available options before reaching your conclusion. Where appropriate, consider asking employees for ideas to help improve business processes and reduce costs.
  • Look for other ways to recognize employees. If you're unable to give merit increases, you can still recognize employee performance in other ways, such as an "Employee of the Month" program, an announcement in company communications, a note from a supervisor, or special privileges like parking in the CEO's spot.

Scenario 3: You didn't get that promotion.

Failing to get a promotion can be deflating for an employee, so consider steps aimed at keeping the employee engaged and motivated going forward, such as:

  • Recognize accomplishments. Recognize the employee's contributions to your company thus far, thank them for their service, and let them know that their career development is important to the company.
  • Create a career development plan. Let the employee know the skills, knowledge, and experience needed for the employee to advance and create a development plan to help the employee get there. For example, perhaps the employee needs a certain certification to be eligible for the promotion, or experience managing a project. Avoid implying that they will get the promotion next time simply by completing the steps you outline.
  • Follow up and reinforce. Demonstrate your commitment to career development by checking in with employees on a regular basis and offering guidance and support. Consider asking supervisors to discuss career development in their regular one-on-one meetings with employees.


Before having a difficult conversation with an employee, make sure you have carefully planned not only what information you need to convey but also how you will deliver it.

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