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How to Have ‘The Talk’ With Difficult Employees or Suppliers

by Cathy Wever

3 min read

It’s human nature to avoid conflict. Most of us like a calm, drama-free existence at home and in the workplace. So it’s no wonder that when it comes to initiating difficult conversations at work, we run for the hills. Unfortunately, this is the least effective approach.

Difficult conversations at work can appear in many forms – performance reviews, inappropriate behaviour, underperforming employees and supplier issues. At one time or another, they all crop up.

To help you prepare for and conduct a difficult workplace conversation, here are five top tips.

There’s No Time like the Present

The time to have a difficult conversation is when the behaviour or issue arises. Avoid procrastinating (easier said than done) as the longer the behaviour goes on, or the issue is ignored, the more likely the employee or supplier is to feel blindsided by your approach and ask: “But if you knew about this for so long, why are you only talking to me about it now?”

Plan

Think about what you are going to say in advance and plan your responses to possible questions and outcomes. This will help avoid a spontaneous exchange during the conversation. Also, choose a calm, private environment in which to have the discussion. Give the employee or supplier your full attention. It’s courteous to turn off your phone and resist any interruptions.

Be Specific

When explaining the issue, be clear, concise and direct in your message. For example, if you are talking to an employee about their underperformance, prepare specific examples of how and when they failed to meet expectations. Where possible, refer back to key performance indicators or other agreed criteria and focus on the impact of their behaviour. For example, if a staff member is always late to work, rather than saying “You are always late to work”, try something like “When you were 30 minutes late to work on Tuesday, our meeting had to be postponed, which wasted your team’s time.”

Focus On Fixing (Not Blaming)

In many instances, difficult conversations are used as a mechanism to get an employee or supplier back on track. When discussing an issue with a supplier, ensure they understand what you are asking them to rectify. Provide clear examples of when and how they failed to deliver and ask them how they intend to fix the problem. For instance, if your print supplier has delivered two substandard projects, discuss the items together to clearly demonstrate the problems, then ask them to suggest how it will be fixed in the future. Be clear about the consequences of any future underperformance.

Listening Is Important

By remaining calm and slowing down your speech, you are giving the conversation the best chance of being a two-way street. Take emotive statements out of your discussion and provide your employee or supplier with a genuine opportunity to explain their side of the story. Most of us just want to be heard. Listening skills are just as important as speaking skills, if not more so. Even if it makes no difference to the outcome, walking away believing they have had a fair hearing will create trust and respect from your employees and suppliers.

No matter how well you prepare for and conduct a difficult conversation, they may not always end well. No matter how conciliatory you have been, or calm in your presentation of the facts, people can be defensive. The employee may leave or the supplier may withdraw their services altogether. As long as you have handled the conversation with tact, compassion and clarity, you’ve done your best.

Learn more about how to manage your workers by browsing our extensive list of articles.

Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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