how to approach difficult conversations with employees.

Approaching uncomfortable conversations with employees on poor performance, remuneration and conduct is never easy and often brings anxiety to managers. After all, humans naturally will try to avoid confrontation.

Avoiding these important conversations can have a hugely negative effect on a team and a business as a whole, impacting morale, productivity, and turnover. However, 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.

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.

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 in the office, 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 to hold the conversation. Never do it in public, but if the issue is minor you could talk about it in a corridor or by the water cooler. If the issue is major you will need to book a meeting room.

It’s Time to Talk

Before you start to talk about the issue itself, you should set the tone for the conversation according to the seriousness of the situation.

You need to make sure you remain calm and respectful at all times and try to build trust with the employee. If you gain trust, the employee will be more likely to talk openly about the issue, giving their opinions whilst responding to yours. Without trust, the employee will likely put their guard up and become defensive about their actions which will lead to a less constructive conversation.

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 meeting. Good managers will usually arrange a follow-up meeting 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.