How to Have a Difficult Conversation With an Employee

how to have a difficult conversation with an employee

Like it or not, the workplace is home to a number of difficult conversations. Discussing topics such as pay and benefits, inappropriate behavior, or underperformance can be uncomfortable.

But having successful one-on-one conversations is what separates great managers from ineffective ones.

Difficult conversations may not be fun, but leaders who navigate them successfully can build stronger relationships with their employees and provide needed guidance and correction on workplace performance or behavior—which fosters employee engagement

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In this article we’ll cover how to create a culture of communication in the workplace and one method you can follow to have successful conversations with your employees. 

  • How to create a culture of communication
  • Following the E.A.S.I.E.R. Method for difficult conversations

Create a culture of communication.

The best managers foster a culture and environment of honest communication. If you want to have effective one-on-one conversations with your employees, they need to trust you. Use these tips to create the right culture for having difficult (but successful) conversations with your team

1. Build a foundation of trust and safety.

Having difficult conversations requires mutual trust and respect. If employees fear that sharing their thoughts has the potential to carry professional, financial, social, physical, or emotional risks, then they are unlikely to be open with you. When employees know they’re safe to share their thoughts (respectfully) without fear of punishment, it gives them a figurative green light.

Foster a safe space for sensitive conversation by paying attention to the way you react to feedback and ideas. If employees witness leaders shutting employees down or retaliating when they come to you with honesty, don’t expect them to share in the future.

2. Be open and supportive of ideas.

Once you’ve built a foundation of trust, demonstrate your trust in your employees by listening to them and including them in the problem-solving process.

Don’t begin a conversation with the goal of reprimanding an employee. Instead, when having these difficult conversations, managers should have two goals:

  • Educate the employee about the situation
  • Solicit any ideas to solve the problem now or in the future

Ask your employees for their thoughts on the situation, and be supportive of incomplete thoughts or ideas that can be fleshed out. Be open to feedback about your own ideas, and show your vulnerability by admitting when you’re wrong or unsure

3. Respond in a timely manner.

It’s not enough to simply receive opinions and hear the voice of employees. The most important thing you can do is respond.

In other words, employees need to see the impact of that conversation. If you don’t respond with action or answers, employees will recognize that you conduct those difficult meetings just to check a box.

Close the loop by illustrating how employee feedback is used, recognizing great ideas or critical times employees spoke up. On the flip side, if employees’ ideas or feedback isn’t put into place, acknowledge what was said and explain why it won’t be used, so they know they were heard.

Make conversations E.A.S.I.E.R.

So how do you actually have a difficult conversation with an employee? It’s important to get it right. If you go about it the wrong way, you might have a much bigger problem on your hands—dealing with a disengaged employee.

Following the E.A.S.I.E.R. method can help keep you on track. The E.A.S.I.E.R. method can be used to handle any difficult conversation, whether it’s about personal hygiene, performance, bad language, or other inappropriate behavior.

Here’s how you might approach the conversation using the E.A.S.I.E.R. method:

Educate yourself first. 

No matter the topic of conversation, you need to enter it as prepared and informed as possible. Verify what you can with concrete examples and evidence and try to keep conversations focused on facts and behaviors, not opinions and feelings.

The better you understand what is happening, the more prepared you will be to tackle the heart of the issue.

Admit that you’re uncomfortable.

Why is this important? Because this conversation is likely to make your employee uncomfortable. By saying you’re uncomfortable, too, you’re sharing some of that burden. 

Say something like: “I’ve got to talk to you about something, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable.” It also sends a message that you’re in this together and that you’re there to help

Start fast, and right.

When addressing a difficult topic, don’t beat around the bush. Come out with it: “The uncomfortable thing I need to talk to you about has to do with [insert inappropriate behavior or performance issue].” That sentence is direct, and also carefully phrased.

In a difficult conversation, you want to avoid two things: labeling and judgment. These can trigger defensiveness and denial, which prevent your message from getting through. So keep your words and tone clear, direct, and neutral.

Inquire about the reason for the problem.

Don’t come into a one-on-one assuming you understand the problem and its causes. The goal here is to have a conversation, not a lecture. Involve your employee in the problem-solving process.

You might say “Help me understand why you think this problem exists.” This approach helps the employee identify what the real problem is and why it occurs—and it helps them take more accountability for their behavior when they can see their role in the issue.

You may even be surprised to learn that the employee has very different reasons for a problem behavior than you expected. Giving space to your employee to express their perspective on the issue gives you important context and helps you to address the problem (and support the solutions) more effectively

Explore possible solutions.

Once you’ve learned the possible reasons for the problem, emphasize why the problem is serious, and that you’re willing to work with the employee to find a solution.

Brainstorm together what changes need to happen and how you can support your employee in those efforts. Depending on the issue, you may want to create a formal action plan. This works especially well for performance-based issues that can be worked through over time.

By working together to brainstorm solutions and decide on a plan of action, you help the employee take ownership of both the issue and its resolution, and provide a realistic path to success


Before ending your conversation, review what was said and any action items you decided on. Reviewing and documenting your conversation will ensure both of you understand and agree on what happened and the plan for moving forward. It also provides an opportunity to clarify any items that were misunderstood to avoid miscommunication in the future

Being a leader isn’t always easy. But building a culture of trust and using these tips for effective one on one meetings can make it easier and more productive. If you're looking for more information on handling uncomfortable performance conversations, download our Pocket Guide.

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Published May 5, 2020 | Written By Jocelyn Stange