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Employee Management

Managing Employee Relations and How to Document Conversations

Managing situations with team members can be challenging. Here are some best practices on how to handle difficult conversations.

Managing Employee Relations and Difficult Conversations

People are complex with different perspectives, opinions, personalities, and motivations both personally and professionally. As a result, managing situations with team members can be challenging.

How many times have you seen a situation at work get worse, handled inadequately, or go unresolved? You probably witnessed some individuals poorly handle the issue or avoid it altogether. Fight or flight! Sound familiar? As a manager, you don’t have the luxury of adopting an avoidance strategy nor can you afford to respond to issues poorly. Good managers must be proactive in addressing issues and do so in a way that allows an open and candid dialogue. So how do you do this?

Well, there are some fundamental rules to consider when it comes to having difficult conversations. First, it is important to understand that difficult conversations usually occur because a social or cultural norm is broken. This could be not meeting quota on a high-performing team, or simply being rude to customers.

Additionally, difficult conversations are exacerbated when the stakes are high. If you or the team member are emotionally attached to the issue, you can be certain that the conversation will be difficult. So, how do you prepare for the conversation? (Hint: You won’t always have this luxury)

How to Manage Difficult Conversations with Employees

Rule #1: Prepare

If you have the time to prepare, you should start by setting aside a time that allows for limited distractions, and you should find a place to have the conversation in private. Unfortunately, difficult conversations don't always happen on your terms. In these instances, you may have to initially engage in an undesirable setting (e.g., sales floor), but you should quickly deescalate and immediately move the conversation to a more appropriate setting. Furthermore, you need to ensure you take time to write down some notes or key points that you want to include in the discussion. Depending on the situation, you may need to have a witness present.

Rule #2: Mutual Respect

Once the physical stage is considered, you need to mentally prepare. You do this by recognizing and considering the emotions you may have about the subject matter. Do you have a “dog in the fight”? For example, if the team member missed their quota, did it impact your team stats and affect your team’s bonus? If so, it is best to recognize this and determine the way you will respectfully convey your concern and point of view. Mutual respect is a must! Although you cannot control another person’s emotions or the way they react, you can and should control yours, and you should always remain professional and keep your composure. It is important to pay attention to your tone, non-verbals or body language, word choice, and emotions. You also need to pay attention to theirs!

Rule #3: Empathy

This brings us to our final point. Be empathetic. You should attempt to understand the team member’s feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. Simply put, place yourself in their shoes. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their point of view. However, doing this will certainly help to keep you from focusing only on your own.

As a manager, you are expected to work through tough issues and effectively have difficult conversations when they are needed. Keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive, but it should help prepare you for managing employee relations.

Leadership 101:

  • Always keep the lines of communication open and be clear about the culture and behaviors that are expected.
  • Encourage candor and honesty.
  • Create a continuous feedback loop so that you are keeping a pulse.
  • Manage with empathy.

Helpful tips:

  1. Assess the problem & identify potential “root causes.” (e.g., personal and life difficulties, lack of understanding, aptitude, attitude, cultural differences/norms, etc.)
  2. Seek understanding: Why would a reasonable and decent person do this? Speak from your understanding and your personal perspective (using I statements) and try not to make assumptions about a team member’s motives. 
  3. Leave out judgments and personal feelings.
  4. Listen to understand: Practice active listening and seek first to understand - rather than to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. Try to avoid thinking about your response while others are speaking.
  5. Be respectful and remain calm.
  6. Self-monitoring: How is my tone? Are my arms crossed? Is my language accusatory?
  7. Find mutual purpose or common ground (e.g., team or individual goals).
  8. Be patient and sincere in the endeavor.
  9. Look for a shift. Has the conversation caused them to become silent, or angry? If so, make an attempt to reset. You could do this by restating your purpose and motive. For example: I’d like to start over. I’m not sure that I have appropriately conveyed my concern and I’d like for us to have an opportunity to work together and find a solution to this issue. Can we start again?

Setting the Stage:

  • Meet in a private setting.
  • When necessary, you should consider having two people present (e.g., manager and manager or HR) and consider at least one person of the same gender as the team member.
  • Seek out guidance from your manager, coach or HR before having the conversation.
  • Role play and practice your delivery.
  • Establish a Parking Lot: One helpful way to ensure the dialogue stays on track is to use a parking lot. The parking lot is a placeholder for capturing ideas that should be followed up later outside of the scope of the conversation. It helps keep things on course and shows the team member that you acknowledge their concern. Then follow up!
  • ALWAYS document the conversation! (If it isn’t in writing, it’s very difficult to prove months or years later what happened, when it happened, and who was involved).

    NOTE: Use Recap emails for conversations that are not typically written documentation – allows for clarifications, serves as a reference point and reminder, and documents the event.
    1. Clearly describe expectations (reference job description, policies & procedures, culture norms, etc.).
    2. Describe the behavior or performance that requires change.
    3. Document the team member’s explanation for expectations that aren’t met.
    4. Work together on an action plan to address the attitude or behaviors that need to be changed.
    5. Clearly articulate the timeline and expectation for when changes are expected.
    6. Be clear about consequences if inappropriate behaviors or poor performance continues.
    7. Be certain your statements are not vague or could be construed as discriminatory in nature (e.g., you are not a “culture fit”).
    8. Always request HR review any written communication before delivering to a team member.

Difficult Conversations are Unavoidable

Although, difficult conversations with team members can be challenging, if you prepare for the conversation, whenever possible, and lead with empathy and focus on working towards a resolution together, these conversations can be mutually beneficial for both the team member and manager.

Do you need expert advice on how to approach difficult conversations? Our experts are here to help! Reach out to us to get started. 


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Dan Duckworth (he/him)

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