HR: Tackling the ‘difficult’ conversations

Do you need to have a performance-related conversation with an employee? Do you need to tackle the boss for a pay rise? Are you looking forward to it? In all likelihood, probably not, and you are not alone. HR expert Liz Johnston has some tips on how to tackle different types of difficult conversations in the workplace.

Difficult conversations: We all have to have them at some time; no one really enjoys them and usually, we will do anything to avoid them.

What makes these types of conversation ‘difficult’? Firstly, the need to have a difficult conversation doesn’t usually happen overnight. Often there is a buildup to the situation. What starts off as a relatively manageable issue can quickly become unmanageable as our minds churn through every possible outcome. By the time we are actually ready to raise the subject, there is a significant build-up of emotion. Once this happens, rather than arranging a mutually beneficial time to discuss this all-important subject, we choose to raise it in what we think is an
opportune moment.

Unfortunately, at times like these, you rarely find the other person in a receptive state. Being on the back foot, they will either push back or avoid the subject to try and get some head space. The situation is therefore unresolved and they walk away with the perception that something isn’t right, and somebody is to blame.

But having a ‘difficult’ conversation doesn’t have to result in hardship or problems. What is takes, as the definition suggests, is effort, (or planning), understanding (of the situation and the person or persons with whom you are raising the subject), and most importantly, skill (achieving a win/win outcome).

Let’s look at two common topics of ‘difficult conversations’: an employee raising the subject of a pay rise and a manager having to address performance issues with an employee.


  1. When you set up the meeting, make sure you let your manager know what you want to discuss and give them the courtesy of enough time to prepare. A professional location for the meeting is important. A coffee shop is not the place to be discussing a pay rise.
  2. Have clear objectives of what you want to achieve in the meeting. Research the market for relativities in terms of salaries offered for your role in the market in which you work. Guessing what the role is worth is never helpful and neither is comparing yourself to your colleagues. Telling your manager you know you don’t earn as much as your colleague/s does not build great trust and confidence with your manager.
  3. Open strongly with positive statements about your work and your role, the company and the team.
  4. Be honest about your performance and achievements to date. Remember: effort does not always equal outcome. What have you achieved? What positive effect has this had on the business?
  5. Be professional, not combatant. This reduces the risk of the meeting going off subject and becoming something completely different.
  6. Be clear and realistic in your expectations. Set yourself a range for the increase. Don’t expect your manager to come back to you with a figure. It will never be what you expected so you are far better to approach the subject with a fair and reasonable number in mind.
  7. Be clear in your mind about what you will negotiate on and what you will not.
  8. Your manager may ask for more time to consider the facts you have presented. This is the time to set the follow-up discussion. If your manager wants to ‘come back to you’, be polite and ask when that might be. Don’t be afraid to follow up on the agreed deadline.
  9. Be prepared for a refusal and be prepared to hold your ground, without emotion, and ask why? If it’s an outright refusal without further consideration, then you have your answer. You also have a choice.
  10. Politely close the meeting and thank your manager for their time. You can consider your options later as to whether you are satisfied with the outcome or not, and take action from there.


No one likes to tell someone they are not performing in their role and equally no one likes to be told they are not performing. This is probably why it is one of the biggest areas of avoidance in business today. Like all difficult conversations, the discussion needs planning, skill, effort and understanding.

  1. Don’t wait until it’s too late to have the conversation about performance. Early intervention is a highly successful strategy.
  2. Depending on the issue, you may think the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Everyone has a right to reply
    and should be given the opportunity to present their side of the story.
  3. Research well. Have hard data that supports the issues you wish to raise. It is not enough to have a ‘sense’ that something is not working well or unsubstantiated feedback from others. Even issues with behaviours can be
    supported by hard data – for example, consistently coming to work late; leaving early; extended lunch breaks;
    numerous cigarette/coffee breaks; written complaints from staff and/or customers. A ‘one-off’ is not necessarily a performance issue. Consistent issues create patterns of behaviour and performance.
  4. Be open and transparent in your arrangement of the meeting. Avoid booking the meeting on a Friday afternoon or just before the employee is going on leave. Also make sure the meeting room is not in full view of the rest of the office.
  5. The overriding objective of any performance issue meeting is to improve the performance of the employee to the level of expectation of the company.
  6. Be very clear about this when opening the meeting with the employee.
  7. Take notes. Advise the employee you will be taking notes, which are for your records. Let them know that they are also welcome to take notes.
  8. Confirm that confidentiality is key. You don’t want the employee to discuss this matter with the rest of the office and you should ensure you don’t allow the subject to become common knowledge.
  9. With increasing pressures of life and work in our society, after opening the meeting a useful strategy is to ask
    the employee if there is there anything happening in their life at the moment that may be affecting their performance at work. Sometimes this simple question can help to explain much of what is affecting an employee’s performance.
  10. Be prepared for a range of emotions that may arise. Stick to your objectives and keep calm and positive about the outcomes; be prepared for push back, especially if this comes as a surprise to the employee. The most important outcome is you achieve a mutually agreed way forward, with clear and measureable objectives. It is also important you quickly arrange follow-up meeting/s and make sure they don’t slip. Having a difficult conversation doesn’t have to result in hardship or problems. While you won’t always achieve a win/win outcome, it is important to be able to say you handled yourself professionally. Planning, research, respect for those involved, clear objectives and a positive attitude will go a long way to help you achieve that.

Liz Johnston is a Senior HR Professional with 16 years’ experience in financial services, telecommunications and sales, advising at both a senior management and executive level in such areas as leadership development, HR process improvement, succession planning and talent development.

Show More

Guest Contributors

If you would like to become a Guest Contributor to Elite Agent Magazine please visit eliteagent.com/contribute