If you run a small business or lead a team, the time will come when you need to have difficult conversations with employees. No matter how positive your work environment is, things will come up that you have to address and it’s not always fun, but it is necessary.

Whether you need to deal with a performance issue, employee conflicts, an uncomfortable or awkward topic, or an occasion that calls for delivering bad news, it is your job as a leader to be prepared to handle these situations when they arise. 

Avoiding concerns or sweeping things under the rug tends to make a challenging situation even worse, which can lead to escalating tension in the office, strained co-worker relationships, and put a damper on workplace morale and productivity. 

The sooner you step up and face the challenge head-on, the better. 

How to Have Difficult Conversations With Employees

Skilled small business leaders know how to have difficult employee conversations in a manner that is direct, clear, and productive. 

Do your homework

Any productive and effective meeting begins with your preparation, so do your homework and gather information in advance. Arrive at the meeting prepared with notes, concrete examples of what needs to be addressed, and specific relevant company policies.

If you’ve been hearing complaints about the employee, look into the issue further and see if there may be a valid explanation or extenuating circumstances to consider.  

Remember that as a small business leader, it is up to you to provide the support and coaching your employees need to succeed. That includes walking into difficult conversations prepared to move forward productively in the best interest of the individual and the organization.

Meet Privately

At times, you may need to break difficult news company-wide or attend to widespread concerns; however, when you need to address an individual employee, it’s best to have a difficult conversation one-on-one, behind closed doors. The conversation may involve other members of the leadership team, but you should avoid including their peers or other colleagues.

Focus together on the particular issue at hand, offering them your undivided attention. Use discretion and stress the importance of confidentiality. 

Take a Positive Approach

No matter how challenging the issue, everyone will benefit if you frame the conversation in a positive light. This doesn’t mean you need to shy away from acknowledging upfront that the discussion might be a tough one to have, but it does mean that you can treat it as an opportunity to deliver constructive feedback that can lead to positive outcomes.

Your approach, attitude, and the energy that you bring to the conversation will affect the mood in the room. If you let them know you care and that you are working in the best interests of everyone, it can help them to be more receptive and open to what you are saying. 

Even if the conversation is about administering disciplinary action, with the right approach, the employee is more likely to walk away feeling like you are being fair and reasonable and more committed to improvement.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

One of the most important skills you can develop as a leader is empathy. No matter the situation, always make the effort to understand the matter from the employee’s point of view. 

Everyone wants to be heard and seen, so if you demonstrate your willingness to actively listen and validate them as a human being, this will go a long way toward earning their respect, which will, in turn, lead to a more productive conversation. 

Besides, when you allow yourself to be open to the employee’s perspective, you may discover that there is a valid explanation for the issue on the table that you may not have considered.  

Stay Focused

Difficult conversations with employees often involve highly-charged emotions. When someone’s work and livelihood are called to question or on the line, it’s human nature for them to become upset or defensive, which can take the discussion off track.

Point to specific company policies and specific employee behaviors, rather than generalized concerns. Also, if the issue is with that particular employee, keep the conversation focused on their actions, avoiding comparisons to others. 

Establish a Plan

If a workplace issue has reached the point where you need to have a challenging discussion with an employee, it should not be a one-off conversation, but part of a plan. You might be tempted to fall into the trap of thinking now that you’ve brought the problem out into the open, cleared the air, and got it off your chest, it’s been handled. 

However, no matter how productive your conversation seems, you should also present the employee with documentation of your conversation with defined expectations and clear, actionable steps to take. When appropriate, give them specific goals to meet, a timeline, and particular ways to measure progress. 

Overall, difficult conversations in the workplace are bound to happen and it is your job as a small business owner to be prepared. Every good leader must be willing to get comfortable being uncomfortable at times. Over time and with practice, it gets easier and you will begin to see the positive changes that take place as a result.

To get help developing your small business leadership skills, schedule a strategy session with Niki Ramirez, MBA, PHR, SHRM-CP, THRP, Founder & Managing Partner, HR Answers, LLC.