Ask HR: Avoiding difficult conversations can cost you

Why it’s not worth putting off performance-related conversations with employees

“Management would be easy if it weren’t for the people.”

Do you find yourself uttering this at times? As much as we appreciate and value our employees and what they do to help make our businesses a success, we sometimes we find ourselves challenged by the management aspect of our jobs. Besides, these types of conversations are hard enough with members of our own family, let alone employees.

When we work with clients, we have found that when it comes to having performance-related conversations with employees, especially conversations about poor performance, clients/managers do everything they can to save the conversations for a later date or “the right time.”

Why not delay? After all, these are difficult conversations, even for seasoned managers.

Why is it so difficult to have these types of conversations with employees? Here are some of the reasons we often hear:

 • We want people/employees to like us

 • We are not sure how to present the information so it will be heard and action will be taken

 • Fear of a defensive/argumentative response

 • Fear of a lawsuit

Before you put these conversations off, consider the cost of avoidance:

 • Erodes employee morale/productivity. Employees know when their peers are not performing and they begin to wonder, why should I work so hard when Paul Poor Performer isn’t and no one seems to care?

 • Lost time. Even though you may think addressing these issues will take too much of your time, dealing with them sooner rather than later actually takes less time in the long run. The longer you wait, the more complicated and distracting the situation will be for your and other employees and the more time it will take to address.

 • Lawsuit/Department of Labor claim. If the first conversation you have about the employee’s performance is at the time of termination you could be exposing yourself and the company to a claim/lawsuit, depending on the nature of the performance problem. Employers need to give an employee the opportunity to correct his/her performance/behavior. This means addressing it early, documenting the conversation(s) and giving the employee a reasonable amount of time to turn the performance around.

Practice and respect

Getting started is the most difficult part of these types of discussions. Before you meet with the employee, consider your objective for the conversation and focus on respect for the individual throughout your conversation. Here are some openers that may help you:

 • I’d like to talk about something with you to help us work better together

 • I need some ideas from you about how to improve “X”

 • I would like to help your success with “X”

Once you have delivered your opener, keep in mind that the best feedback is straight forward and simple. Here are some additional steps:

 • Tell the employee the positive impact of this behavior change

 • Tell the employee how choosing to do nothing will affect their job/career

 • Reach agreement about what the employee will do to change their behavior

 • Engage the employee in developing a solution(s)

 • Set a due date for change/action

 • Set a timeframe to review progress and follow-up

 • Document the conversation.

 • Practice or even role-play this conversation with one of your colleagues (not the employee’s peer)

As Dr. Robert Anthony, a personal performance trainer and author, said, “Waiting is a trap. There will always be reasons to wait. The truth is, there are only two things in life, reasons and results, and reasons simply don’t count.” Through practice and a focus on respect, you can become effective at holding difficult conversations. These conversations can mean the difference between success and failure for a valued employee and for your business, so care enough to talk to them sooner than later.

Delise West, president and founder of HR outsourcing firm Human Resource Partners, with offices in Concord and Dover, can be reached at 603-749-8989 or through

Categories: Business Advice