Tough HR conversations

6 steps for tackling tough HR conversations

We assembled the following six steps to help you with a difficult discussion (although we suggest getting an HR professional's advice when dealing with critical HR issues).

Face it; it's just a matter of time before you need to talk with employees about:

  • A messy desk
  • Being late
  • Discrimination
  • Drugs or alcohol use
  • Excessive cell phone usage (texting or talking)
  • Flirtatious behavior
  • Having an inter-office affair
  • Inappropriate attire
  • Leaving dirty dishes in the sink
  • Personal hygiene
  • Vulgar language

We assembled the following six steps to help you with a difficult discussion (although we suggest getting an HR professional's advice when dealing with critical HR issues).

Seek permission to give feedback

At the start of less-critical HR conversations, you should ask an employee for permission to give feedback. Opening a two-way channel between you and the employee you are speaking with helps to explore the problem from every angle. For critical HR issues, no permission is necessary.

Keep cool, calm and collected

Slamming someone verbally never solves anything, and raising your voice is just a scare tactic that puts an employee on the defensive. Instead, you should broach the matter with a calm and level tone. The goal of your conversation is for your employee to become aware of whatever you are trying to address and to not be sidetracked by emotions.

Focus on the problem

Telling someone that other coworkers have voiced complaints about his or her attitude and/or behavior can seem like redirection. More often than not, this only exacerbates the issue or even creates new ones. What matters most is the issue at hand, so you should focus solely on that during the conversation(s).

Keep the discussion simple

As mentioned in Step #3, staying focused is in everyone's best interest. You should keep your conversations simple, direct and on topic -- and not sidetrack the real issue at hand with irrelevant discussions.

Reach an understanding

The goal of most HR conversation is to facilitate change or improvement. That requires both parties to come to an understanding about what needs to be done and when it ought to be done. We recommend that you schedule a follow-up date to review the employee's changed attitude and/or behavior.

Follow up

The more feedback you can provide, the more likely someone is to change his or her attitude and/or behavior. Repeated follow-up helps ensure the desired changes are maintained.

Executive Summary

Navigating tough HR conversations is never fun. However, it can be made easier by heeding the steps listed above. Doing so will help build your comfort level and provide a mental outline for you to follow during future HR conversations. It is best to have difficult HR conversations sooner versus later, as it could avoid potential legal issues in the future.

For more information about tackling tough conversations, contact Carrie Cox via email, or Cindy McSwain using her information below.

Cindy McSwain

Senior Vice President
Outsourcing Services

Cindy McSwain leads AGH’s outsourcing services group. Her team provides payroll, accounting, funds disbursement, controller, and other financial outsourcing services to numerous clients throughout the U.S. Prior to directing the outsourcing group, Cindy served AGH’s audit clients for 10 years, working with a wide range of middle-market, closely held and family-owned clients.

Her current clients cross many industry sectors, including manufacturing, distribution, restaurants, retailers, medical, and not-for-profit. She has participated in numerous SEC filings and public registrations and has experience in mergers and acquisitions. Cindy is a certified public accountant and a member of both the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Kansas Society of Certified Public Accountants.

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