Performance Review - Employers Legal Resource Center

Preparing for and Having Difficult Performance Conversations with Employees

September 14, 2018

Author: Trey Box, Of Counsel – Employers Legal Resource Center
(405) 702-9797

We all partake in difficult conversations throughout our lives.   These conversations vary infinitely in nature and purpose – from simple matters of preference to complex matters of life and death.  Sometimes we are the leaders of such conversations, and other times, we are the receivers.  Regardless of which side of the conversation we sit, the difficulty of a given conversation is defined by our unique and individual perceptions.

In the workplace, employee performance conversations provide yet a heightened degree of complexity given the stakes that may be involved. Inevitably, effective managers will “lead” their fair share of these difficult conversations.  Proper preparation and execution by a manager faced with this task may be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful (or even worse) outcome resulting from the conversation.


BE PROACTIVE.  The foundation for whether a given difficult performance conversation between you and one of your employees will be productive may very well be set far in advance of either one of you knowing that such a conversation looms on the horizon.  Diligently (and authentically) collect trust as early and often as possible with your employees during the employment relationship, so if and when the time comes for a difficult conversation, the challenging conversation will have the support of a solid foundation to work from.

Additionally, waiting for an issue to boil over with one of your employees before you are finally forced into having to have a difficult conversation with that employee is not an effective strategy for providing your employee the best opportunity for personal accountability and self-growth nor for minimizing potential risks and liabilities to the organization you serve (see my earlier article “Managers…Please Do Not Forget To Harvest The ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’”). Be a proactive issue spotter when it comes to employee performance with the intention of providing contemporaneous remedial coaching on an ongoing basis (I refer to this as “managing in real time”).

BE NICE.  There is nothing to be productively gained by being anything but nice (i.e., respectful and courteous – professional) during difficult conversations of this nature.  A wise manager understands the importance of always modeling what he/she expects his/her employees to emulate – even during difficult conversations.

BE PREPARED.  Don’t make an already difficult conversation even more challenging for a lack of planning.  The ability to think on your feet when faced with uncertainty and unpredictability is important; however, having a plan for getting back on track and effectively completing the task at hand is essential.  Understand the facts, observations, concerns, issues and have applicable resources (references, policies and procedures, contacts, forms, supporting documentation, backup personnel, etc.) readily available during the conversation.  Anticipate and plan for unexpected detours the best that you can – including the possibility for inappropriate reactions by the employee and/or the employee’s immediate resignation.

BE APPROPRIATELY CONFIDENTThere is no room for arrogance during such conversations, but you must offer your employee a sense of confidence in your position regarding the concerns being addressed.

BE FOCUSEDConversations of this nature demand your utmost attention and presence. Speak with purpose and listen intently.  Be in the moment without unnecessary distractions (e.g., incoming phone calls, text message or email alerts, visitors, tight schedule, excessive note taking – have a witness attend if necessary, etc.).  Follow your plan.  If your employee attempts to deflect from the issue(s) at hand, reiterate the specific purpose and importance of the conversation (no matter how many times you have to repeat yourself) then offer to possibly discuss unrelated concerns at another time.  Now is not the time to be tempted to explore rabbit holes.  Again, follow your plan.

BE ENGAGED.  Be sincerely vested in the success of your employee as demonstrated by your commitment to the desired result of the performance conversation.  Appropriately placed empathy (not to be confused with sympathy or being apologetic) can be a powerful means of successfully connecting with your employee.  Bottom line – to be a successful manager, in good times and bad, know your employees!  Here is an applicable worthy read for managers:  Marcus, B. (2005, March).  What Great Managers Do. Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved from

© Box Law Practice, PLLC, 2018.  All rights reserved.

***DISCLAIMER*** This article (“Publication”) is made available for general informational / educational purposes only and not to provide specific legal advice. The Publication should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state. By accessing the Publication, you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the attorney author or any law firm he may be associated with.

#employeerelations #employeeperformance #employeediscipline #workplaceissues #managingpeople #difficultconversations