How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Employees?

Need to talk to your employees about their falling performance or low target achievement?

Need to discuss an unpleasant incident (like a feud among employees) that’s happened at work?

Are your employees facing an issue with their co-workers and you need to address this?

These are some of the instances where managers need to have those “difficult” conversations with their employees. Though tough, such conversations need to be taken up, and that too very cautiously. Brushing these issues aside will only damage the employee productivity and organization culture further.

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For leaders, the willingness to directly discuss a performance issue, a compensation-related matter, or any other behavioral issue is critical for their team’s success. It’s all ultimately linked to both development of your employees and the development of the organization as a whole. 

Failure to have difficult conversations with employees at work impedes employee engagement and organizational trust. Clear & open communication is one of the best ways to understand your people, their issues and address these effectively. 

Ways to handle difficult conversations with employees

Here are a few ways to make difficult conversations easy to execute, effective, amicable, and productive. 

1. Don’t hesitate to take it up

Whenever it comes to having those uncomfortable discussions with employees, managers tend to feel a little hesitant or reluctant. It’s a valid feeling, no one really likes to experience conflict situations with people. Managers fear that their employees may not be able to take the conversation in a positive way. Let’s admit it, some employees are not great at handling negative feedback

What is to be kept in mind is, even if it’s a difficult conversation, say about their low performance, etc. it’s only going to help them in the long run. Employees don’t always realize how their work style, attitude or behavior impacts their work and that of others around them. 

Being a mentor, you need them to realize the blind spots and improve on these. The main aim is to make your teams get better at what they are doing and develop further. That’s exactly what you are helping them with. 

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2. Empathize with your people 

While this has to be a professional dialogue, don’t take empathy out of it. Realize how your employees would feel during the conversation, allow them to process their emotions & give them time to express themselves. 

Understand the context, clearly explain to them the matter at hand and try and understand their side of the story – Are they doing okay? Why are they acting the way they are or doing the things they are? 

Find ways to address the matter without confronting, condemning, or ridiculing them. Make them understand that your sole purpose here is to only help them succeed. Stay humane with your approach. 

3. Keep your emotions always under check  

Empathize, yes; but do keep your emotions under check. There are times these discussions may get emotional, especially when it’s with an employee you work closely with. Make a strong effort to stay practical and keep your own feelings under check. Such discussions should always be fact-based; offer concrete examples if possible.

Being in control of your emotions will make you deliver the message effectively. Feelings or emotions have a tendency to dominate a conversation and deplete any potential progress that can be made. 

4. Be direct & specific

Be direct and get to the point as soon as possible. The sandwich approach may not be the best practice here. We often tend to go overboard with the positives prior to breaking the unpleasant news. This may just dilute the whole purpose & impact of having such a discussion. 

It may take away an employee’s opportunity to understand and relate to what is being conveyed and improve on their skills and potential. You do not want to leave your employees confused.

Instead, talk about what didn’t work and why in a constructive way. Share what you think the employee could do differently, gain a perspective to align the future course of action. Be honest and clear with your feedback, at all times. The clearer you are the more receptive your employees is to critique.

5. Suggest an action plan

Do not leave your employees with just feedback. Employee feedback is only useful when supported by some kind of action plan. Offer concrete suggestions on how your employees can rectify mistakes and improve. If it’s about a promotion issue, inform your employee why he/she is not being promoted and what they need to work on to make it a possibility. 

Remember, you are a mentor too and you want your employees to do well at the end of the day. Your employees should be able to take away something from the conversation. Show them ways to bring about change. Employees should leave the meeting room thinking they can do better and how to make progress in that direction. 


No one really looks forward to having difficult conversations with his or her employees. But sometimes, it’s like a necessary evil for our team’s growth & development. Adopting a systematic and well-articulated feedback approach here will help in making such challenging conversations productive and successful. 

The approach may vary depending on the unique circumstances of an organization, however, the aim should always be to sustain a healthy work environment where all employees feel valued, motivated, and engaged. 

By Garima Sharma

Lead – Talent Assessments & Employee Engagement at GreenThumbs.

Garima Sharma is a subject matter expert for Personality Assessments, Talent Management, 360 Degree Appraisals, Employee Engagement, etc. She is also a blogger who loves to write articles, whitepapers, etc. in the HR space.