Blog Post

Your Seven-Step Guide to Having Tough Conversations with Employees

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Many people want to move into a management role because of higher pay, prestige and the ability to finally do things their way. But managing people also means having difficult conversations with the people that report to you. Whether you need to discuss performance, explain how a role is evolving or enforce the dress code, you should be prepared for tough talks.

Employment attorney and HR consultant Kate Bischoff has put together a 7 point checklist for having these tough conversations. But how can you implement this checklist in a real-life scenario? Let's say you have an employee whose outfit is inappropriate for the office. Here's how Bischoff's guidelines would play out in the case of a dress code violation.

Step 1: Plan

You can't go into a conversation about a sensitive topic without planning it first—after all, how do you expect employees to take the conversation seriously, if you aren't adequately prepared for it. Consider what are you going to say and how will you say it. In this case, make sure you review the official company dress code so that you can refer to it. Having a printed copy on hand would be great.

Step 2: Consult

Dress code conversations can seem straight forward, but gut check your plan with your boss, peer or HR department. Sometimes managers use dress code issues as an easy excuse to reprimand an employee that's exhibiting other problematic behaviors, and that's not the best way to deal with the underlying issue. Make sure you're approaching employees for the correct reason and you have company support.

Step 3: Take a Beat

Never go to an employee in anger. Take time to contemplate and be calm before you have the discussion.

Step 4: Schedule

Grabbing someone on the floor for a quick discussion is fine, but for a tough conversation, it's best to set aside a time and secure a place to handle the discussion thoughtfully. This is especially important if you have an open floor plan or cubicles that don't allow privacy—sensitive conversations about something like a dress code should be conducted in a private setting.

Step 5: Anticipate

Just how do you expect your employee to react? It's likely that they won't be thrilled, so be prepared for that. For instance, having the printed dress code will be a great way to respond if they claim you're picking on them or being sexist.

Step 6: Prepare For a Surprise

You can never anticipate everything that will come out of an employees' mouth. A dress code conversation response can run anywhere from, "You're right, this is inappropriate," to "My mother died when I was 12 and she left this skirt to me, and it's how I feel close to her. I can't believe you'd insult my dead mother!"To have a chance at an appropriate response, consider several possible scenarios in your mind, and prepare your follow-up to them.

Step 7: Document

After the conversation, write down a recap of the meeting and email it to the employee. She doesn't have to sign it, but she should have a record of it taking place, according to Bischoff. Keep your notes in the employee's file, so that if you ever need to have a follow up conversation, you can start where you left off.Adopting these steps for every tough conversation can increase the likelihood of positive, effective correction. Walking in unprepared can cause high emotions, and leave you wondering if you were right to bring it up at all. Developing a solid plan, however, can prevent much of that.Photo: Creative Commons

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