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  • Adam Wright

Approaching A Difficult Conversation With An Employee

Three Tips Business Owners Should Remember


It’s normal for any employee to feel a twinge of alarm when the boss wants to talk. Getting called into the manager’s office brings up feelings akin to being called to the principal’s office in high school. Students and workers alike may rack their brains trying to figure out whether they did anything wrong, or if there is cause for immediate concern.


As a business owner, it’s no less stressful being on the opposite side of a difficult conversation. No one enjoys having to reprimand an employee or, worse yet, having to deliver the painful news that a worker is being terminated.


As a business owner for more than 20 years, I’ve had to have my fair share of challenging chats with employees. I interact with everyone at our central Ohio headquarters on a daily basis, and it’s less than ideal when I have to give someone bad news or issue a warning.


Here are three tips that have served me well over the years when approaching this kind of conversation.


1. Don’t delay.


As uncomfortable as a tough conversation is, don’t delay it. It’s best to just schedule the meeting as soon as possible. This isn’t just for your state of mind. It’s for the benefit of the entire company.


For example, let’s say a worker isn’t cooperating well with the rest of the team. As a business owner, you want to tackle that issue immediately. If allowed to fester, problems among the team could damage productivity and therefore impact company profits as well as company morale.


If a worker isn’t meeting goals or is repeatedly making mistakes, address it early. No one wants to hear that their performance is inadequate. But discussing it will allow that worker to make changes and improve. Nip that sort of issue in the bud.


2. Choose the location wisely.


As referenced above, getting called into the boss’s office has the potential to make an employee feel very nervous. Pick the location of the conversation based on the message you’re trying to express.


If I want to give one of my employees a pep talk, then I’ll ask them to take a walk with me outside or go to lunch. Sometimes, employees need to improve certain skills or require coaching. I’m more than willing to provide that guidance and implement a game plan so that all of my team members have the best chance to succeed. A more relaxed environment is better suited for this type of chat.


But if the conversation is more of a stern talking-to, I suggest having that chat in the office. Just lay out the problem in clear language, and don’t beat around the bush, especially if you’ve reached a point where you have to fire someone. This leads to my third point of advice.


3. Keep a written record.


I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve always been advised to write everything down. As a business owner or manager, you must be proactive to protect yourself against any possible lawsuits. Even if this never comes about, it’s better to be prepared just in case.


For example, imagine that one of your workers requires additional training. Write down the date when you spoke with the employee about it, and keep track of which days the worker went through training sessions. (As a side note, be sure to set an end date for when you want a specific problem to be fixed. The employee needs to have a deadline.) This documentation helps to provide evidence that, as a company, you offered opportunities for the employee to improve.


However, there are times when additional coaching and training doesn’t fix the problem. A person’s talent and experience isn’t always enough, especially if they aren’t being a good teammate.


If you have to terminate someone, keep the conversation straightforward. Explain why you are making the decision to fire this person, and don’t allow yourself to get pulled into a longer, more emotional conversation. Having to let someone go isn’t pleasant. But I’ve found that sticking to the facts is the best method for muscling through it.


This article was first published in Forbes on November 20, 2019.