Need to hold a difficult conversation with a staff member at work? Here are some tips to help you get it right


Mangers often describe performance counselling as the most stressful activity they have to undertake — that stress has repercussions for the organisation. All too often, managers find an excuse to avoid having the difficult conversation they need to have with employees whose behaviour has deviated from the organisation's required standards. Although in the short term, managers avoid discussing sensitive and difficult issues, in the long term they create problems for themselves, the organisation and the employee.   Also, when managers do muster up the courage to have the difficult conversation, they often do so clumsily, which can exacerbate the situation. 

The need to give feedback

The need to give feedback is best highlighted by looking at the consequences of NOT Giving Feedback. Here are some of those consequences:

  1. Employee's performance remains low.
  2. Employee's career prospects can be affected.
  3. Other team members become demoralised.
  4. The issue can become harder to address later on.
  5. The issue can delay the employee's entry into a formal counselling process (if required).
  6. Business productivity can be affected.
  7. Employees remain unaware of their actions and behaviours.
  8. The Manager's own performance review and prospects may suffer.

Tips to successful conversations that might otherwise have been difficult

So how do you hold difficult conversations that are constructive and professional and that don't lead to further grievance or conflict?

Here are some tips that might help you prepare:

  1. Firstly, seek permission from the person to provide feedback.  Even if you are the person's supervisor or manager, start the conversation by saying that you have some feedback that you would like to share.  Ensure that the time and place is appropriate and acceptable to them. (Don't just barge into it because you have steeled yourself to do it now.)
  2. Advise the person at the start of the conversation that the feedback is difficult to share and give the person a chance to prepare mentally for potentially embarrassing feedback.  If you feel uncomfortable in the situation, you may like to express that as well.
  3. Make sure the feedback is well supported by facts and examples to ensure that it is not vague and ill defined.
  4. Direct the feedback at behaviours and not at the person or their personality.
  5. If you are providing difficult feedback at the request of others, then try not to draw too much attention to this fact and do not excuse your responsibility. Doing so might increase embarrassment and harm the recovery of the person receiving the feedback.
  6. Ensure that you do not discount or apologise for the feedback. It is important to take responsibility for what you are passing on.
  7. Make sure that communication is two way and is a discussion. Be open to valid explanation, but focus on the solution and not on attributing blame.
  8. State the matter to the person in simple and straightforward terms.   For example; “to be successful in this organisation, I would like to ask you to improve the way you . . . ”
  9. Advise the person of the positive impacts that change will make for their career and job.
  10. Agree on —  and set a deadline for — what the person will do to improve their behaviour or change the problematic situation.  Ensure that you involve them in the process and get their input into the plan. Set a time to sit down and review their progress.
  11. When following up, be honest.   Provide positive or negative feedback as needed.  In some cases, a counselling or disciplinary procedure may be the logical next step.  Speak to your Human Resources Advisor about what to do if the situation has not improved.

As hard as these types of conversations can be, it is good that you care enough about the person's success as a valued employee to make the time and effort to hold these discussions.  Above all, unless the matter is of an unlawful nature, maintain happiness in your workplace by keeping the discussions confidential. 

If feedback is planned and managed sensitively, the response is usually positive.  Planning doesn't of course guarantee a positive response. But a lack of planning and technique will make a positive response far less likely. You can't always tell staff what they want to hear, however you can tell them in a way they will be prepared to listen. 

Information about HR documents from Cleardocs

You can read about the Cleardocs HR Manual here.