Having a difficult conversation is not something that most of us look forward to. That said, from time to time it is an inevitable part of life. In any event, avoidance is not the way to properly manage situations that need to be addressed. With employees, difficult conversations will normally centre around performance issues. For example, you may have an employee that is consistently arriving to work late. Your first inclination is that the issue will correct itself. While this may be wishful thinking, in reality these types of problems rarely go away on their own. Not having the conversation will merely perpetuate the issue. Furthermore, it sends a message to the employee that the behaviour is acceptable and also signals to other employees that showing up to work late is okay. If it is problematic behaviour, address the issue soon. Difficult conversations can also be linked to non-performance related items. Maybe you have an employee who doesn’t dress appropriately for the office or who seems to lack in the personal hygiene department. Although you’d probably rather take a trip to the dentist, talk to your employee to problem solve and (ideally) bring closure to the issue. Below are some suggestions for having difficult conversations:

  • Address the situation in a timely manner. Don’t wait days or weeks (or even longer) while the behaviour, etc. continues.
  • Talk to the specific individual about the problem. If you work in a scent-free environment and only one employee is not adhering to the policy by wearing lots of perfume or cologne, don’t send out a generic email to the entire group. The guilty party is unlikely to pay any attention to a group email. Have a conversation with the person who is wearing the perfume or cologne. As well, always ensure that the discussion is held in private. Bringing it up with the individual at the team meeting is not the best route to go.
  • Be direct in your conversation. Although the discussion will hopefully be cordial, ensure that the issue is made clear to the employee. If someone is wearing sweat pants to the office (where business causal is the normal attire), don’t beat around the issue. Let the employee know that wearing sweats to the office is not acceptable and that the expectation is that dress pants are worn.
  • Follow-up your discussion in writing. For instance, after you’ve spoken to your employee to let them know that they need to advise you if they are leaving the office to attend a medical appointment, follow-up the discussion with a quick email. This way, if the action continues at some point in the future, it makes it difficult for the employee to say that they didn’t know that the behaviour needed to change.

Life is full of challenging situations that need to be addressed. With employees, have these conversation in an open, honest, and productive manner. Even though the recipient may be uncomfortable (as you also may be!) with the topic, they will respect you for the manner in which the discussion takes place. Part of being a good leader is dealing with issues in a direct, appropriate manner; avoid “avoiding” difficult discussions!

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