How to handle difficult conversations with problematic employees

Workplaces can often reflect the environment one would expect to find in a middle school — from co-worker squabbles and bullying behaviors, to performance issues and even basic hygiene concerns. And confronting these types of sensitive workplace issues is only becoming more complex, frequent and intense. So how should employers approach the uncomfortable situation of having difficult conversations with problematic employees? It requires much more consideration than in the past, especially considering these workplace situations can quickly escalate into violence or other inappropriate behaviors.

Step 1: Breathe and assess with a clear mind

First and foremost, employers should start by literally taking a deep breath and a few steps back in order to clearly understand the entirety of the situation from a nonbiased perspective. Remember, human resource management is not emergency surgery — it essentially involves understanding where a person sits relative to the company’s operation and how a situation is preventing an optimal and legally compliant workplace. This requires an employer to be familiar with the individual(s) involved and any inter-relational dynamics.

Equally important to this initial assessment is identifying which sources helped to form your current perception of the situation. If a political agenda or other power-dynamic appears to be at play, it’s important to assess whether you’re in a position to address the problematic employee, or if you’re in fact being used to pursue some sort of hidden agenda. By allowing the space to conduct a more neutral review of the matter before taking action, an employer will be better equipped to properly handle the difficult conversation.

Step 2: Identify your objective

Once you have good working knowledge of the situation and have affirmed the employee is indeed problematic, it’s important to determine exactly what you intend to accomplish during the conversation. Is there a corrective action you’d like to implement or a resolution to achieve? If the inappropriate behavior is a new occurrence, fostering an open conversation could help get to the root of the issue, or even reveal similar conduct by others that isn’t readily apparent. After all, fact finding before fault finding is the preferred method.

Step 3: Map out your approach

An employer should never enter a crucial conversation with a problematic employee without a strategy. There are three primary stages to the conversation: identify, address and explain.

First, it’s important to clearly identify the reason for the meeting. For example, statements like “an allegation has been made against you that we need to discuss as part of my investigation” or “as you know, we were investigating an allegation of misconduct by you and we are here to inform you of the conclusion and recommendations of the investigation” work well.

Next, address the subject matter of the meeting. If the purpose is fact finding, ask general questions, listen well and take detailed notes. If you are relaying investigative results, be factual and concise and then ask whether the individual has any additional information to be considered.

Lastly, explain any next steps in the process. If the individual is being placed on a performance improvement plan, explain the plan and review intervals in detail. If the worker is being terminated, explain what will transpire from the moment your meeting ends until he or she leaves the premises, and what contact (if any) is permitted thereafter.

Step 4: Focus on presentation and tone

Although it’s impossible to control how an employee responds, a supervisor can manage his or her own self-behavior and reaction. As management, you already have more control than the problematic worker has during the meeting. You know what will be discussed and the objective.

It’s reasonable to assume the worker is fearful and expects the worst. That said, keep in mind that people express fear differently. Although most are quiet, there are some who yell and throw things. However, you can set the tone of the conversation through how you present yourself. By having a calm and matter-of-fact demeanor, you will appear confident and assertive. Any emotion should be addressed in an appropriate manner. Tears should be met with tissues and a few moments of silence before you continue. On the other hand, yelling should be met with an even tone while stating “I understand you are upset, but it’s inappropriate to raise your voice.” In other words, be the adult in the room at all times – no matter the situation at hand.

Although these types of conversations can certainly be uncomfortable and scary for both the employer and employee, hitting the pause button and taking the opportunity to properly prepare will ultimately result in a smoother process and better outcome for all involved.

Sarah Moore is a partner at the Cleveland office of Fisher Phillips, a national management-side labor and employment law firm.