how to approach difficult conversations with employees.

Approaching uncomfortable conversations with employees on poor performance, remuneration and conduct is never easy at the best of times without the added discomfort and issues that a pandemic brings into peoples lives and subsequent workplaces.  Any difficult conversation can often bring anxiety to managers. After all, humans naturally will try to avoid confrontation. 

However avoiding these important conversations can have a hugely negative effect on a team and a business as a whole, impacting morale, productivity, and turnover.  These conversations are some of the most important in our career and dealing with difficult and awkward communication in a constructive way, with skill and empathy makes you a better manager and ultimately makes your business more successful and your employees lives more fulfilled!

At polkadotfrog we understand that these discussions are never easy for employees or employers, so we’ve produced a guide on techniques that you can put into practice, to make an uncomfortable situation slightly less awkward with a positive outcome.

Tackle the Root Cause

Difficult conversations get harder to have the longer you leave them and they usually have much greater consequences. It is important that once identified an issue is tackled at the earliest opportunity before the problem escalates and has a greater impact on the business.

The first step to solving an issue is to accept and acknowledge that a conversation is needed. Ask yourself: What value will this bring to the business? How will this impact the wider team? What do I want to accomplish?

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!

You’ll notice that we touch on preparation and planning in a lot of our blogs, and we cannot stress how important it is. Rushing into a difficult conversation without knowing exactly how you are going to handle it will usually end in disaster. Dedicating time to think about the situation will help you to become more rational with an added focus on the objectives you have set out to achieve.

First, put the shoe on the other foot. Try and think about how you would feel if you were in the employee’s position. Anticipate how they will react to the conversation and be prepared for every scenario. 

Identify the objective, whether it’s to discourage offensive language on the team Zoom call or challenge an employee to improve their performance which will help them to achieve the raise they’ve requested.

Is it a minor or major issue? This will help you to make the correct decision on where, when and how to hold the conversation.   A phone call is never a good idea however due to so many of us working from home it should be considered although the use of video conferencing is probably the most ideal in todays climate.

It’s Time to Talk, to Zoom or not to Zoom?

When you have to have a difficult conversation virtually due to the now normal “working from home” situation here’s a few steps to help the online conversation go smoothly.

First, use a videoconferencing tool, such as Skype,  Zoom so that eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice will be apparent.  So many business owners and managers have mastered Zoom!  You want the other person to be able to understand both what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.  

Second, go somewhere private and quiet for the call, and ask the other person to do the same. If possible, make sure neither of you is dealing with any distractions.   It’s probably a great idea not to use the cat filter either…

Third, be specific about what you’re saying. When we’re physically distant from someone, we’re more likely to view them, or the difficult situation, abstractly. That’s why it’s so important to be detailed, whether you’re giving feedback or delivering bad news. Making notes before the meeting can ensure that you cover all the points you need to.

Before you start to talk about the issue itself, you should set the tone for the conversation according to the seriousness of the situation.  It’s also a good idea to initially understand the impact of COVID on the individual’s wellbeing.  Before you jump feet first into the conversation a great manager knows that supporting your team through a difficult period and keeping an open mind could pay dividends all round.

Make it clear that you are assessing their behaviour and actions and not them as a person, reiterate that you are there to support them and guide them through change. However, they need to understand the consequences of their actions and be fully aware of what would happen should the issue continue or happen again.  Educate the employee about the situation and identify how they could have handled the issue in a more efficient way. Talk about the next steps, giving proper guidance and make solid agreements on their conduct going forward.


After a difficult conversation, both employees and managers will likely have additional thoughts that they wished they had been able to address in the online meeting. Good managers will usually arrange a follow-up meeting in the same way where they will summarise the outcomes of the previous conversation and allow the opportunity for any further questions to be addressed.

This meeting gives the employee and manager a mutual understanding, reiterates any agreements and further installs trust between the individual and the business.

So a few tips from polkadotfrog and whilst we hope you’re not having too many tough conversations always aim for the win/win by being open, respectful and supportive where needed.   Good employees are hard to find.