HR[preneur] Episode 10: How to Handle Difficult Conversations

HRpreneur Episode 10

Hard conversations come with the territory of running a business. Whether the topic revolves around pay cuts, a denied promotion, or a policy violation, we'll give you tips for making sure these types of conversations go smoothly.

Episode Info

How to Handle Difficult Conversations (click to listen/download podcast)

We give you tips on having conversations with employees about sensitive subjects, both work-related and more personal, to help make sure you get your point across while respecting employees' boundaries.

Reference Shelf

Speaker Info

Kara Murray is the Vice President of Sales Operations for ADP's Small Business Client Channel. Kara has been with ADP for 9 years and has been in various sales and sales leadership positions while she has been with ADP. One of her primary goals is to educate our clients on the ever-changing HR landscape and how ADP can help them overcome everyday workplace challenges.

Kristin LaRosa is Senior Counsel for ADP's Small Business Services division. Prior to joining ADP, Kristin worked as an employment lawyer where she represented employers in litigation and provided legal advice and counseling on day-to-day employment and HR matters.

Meryl Gutterman is Counsel for ADP's Small Business Services division. Prior to joining ADP, Meryl worked as an attorney in private practice representing small businesses in employment-related matters.

Full Transcript

Kara Murray: Hard conversations come with the territory of running a business. Whether the topic revolves around pay cuts, a denied promotion, or a violation of company policy, how can you make sure it goes smoothly?

I'm Kara Murray. And this is HR{preneur} – a podcast by ADP. You work incredibly hard to support your employees and make your business a success. More than likely this means you wear lots of hats, and one of those might be HR professional. We're here to help you get the insight you need in order to tackle day-to-day workplace issues.

This week, I'm joined by Kristin LaRosa and Meryl Gutterman. Both work as Counsel for ADP's Small Business Services. They're here to talk about how to handle difficult employee conversations.

Thanks to the ADP Client Appreciation Program for sponsoring this episode. You can get free payroll by referring ADP, and you can find out more by talking to your ADP representative.

So, what is it about difficult conversations that makes us so uncomfortable?

Kristin LaRosa: I would say its likely due to the anticipation of how the other person is going to react. I think most people who have to engage in these difficult conversations are concerned about the employee's emotional response. Whether its tears or anger, these type of reactions are uncomfortable, any nobody wants to be the one to trigger them. But that's not to say that avoidance is the answer. Facing the issue head on and preparing for the conversation can lead to a much better outcome.

Kara: So, if you're preparing for a conversation that you've already labeled in your mind as "difficult", what advice do you have for pushing through?

Meryl Gutterman: Well, likely you're nervous. And the best thing to do is to reframe the situation. So, for instance, if you're preparing for a performance review where the feedback is less than stellar… Think of it, instead, as an opportunity to provide constructive feedback to get the employee back on track.

Kara: But what if the conversation is really difficult, like, "Hey, your grooming habits violate company policy."

Kristin: Yeah – that's a tough one but the reality is poor hygiene can have a negative effect on customers and co-workers. When you're addressing this type of issue, it's important to strike the right balance between being sensitive, yet direct. I would recommend you have the conversation in a private setting and start by letting the employee know that you're about to discuss a difficult topic. Remember, you've had time to process this issue – but they may be completely unaware that a problem even exists. Explain the issue in factual terms, avoid judgmental language, and treat the employee with respect. Also, I should have added that before the meeting – check to see if your company has a relevant policy so you can cite to the policy and its intended purpose

Meryl: I would also say, in this particular situation, make sure you understand your workers' rights before a discussion takes place. Since, under federal and state laws, you may be required to make a reasonable accommodation for an individual's disability or sincerely held religious beliefs. So, if you require employees to be clean-shaven, for example, you may need to make an exception for someone who maintains a beard as part of their religious practices.

Kristin: Absolutely. Hygiene issues may be caused by a variety of protected factors, such as medical issues, cultural differences, mental health issues, or personal problems. You never want to simply assume that any one of these factors is the cause, but you do want to be mindful of nondiscrimination laws when addressing a hygiene issue – and to Meryl's point understand that you may have to find a way to accommodate the employee.

Kara: Got it. So, in many cases, difficult conversations can lead to strained working relationships. How can employers lessen the negative impact on employee morale?

Meryl: Yeah. This is a great question. I'll start with a situation I've dealt with in the past… An employer, who consistently provided annual pay increases, was not in a position to do so one year. But employees were accustomed to an annual raise and came to expect it. When the employer told his staff that there would be no merit increases that year, morale suffered.

We recommend employers be straightforward with employees about the difficult situation the company is facing. And, in this case, to consider announcing the pay freeze as early as possible.

And in sensitive situations like these, acknowledge that the decision was difficult for the company and that you considered all available options before reaching your conclusion.

Kristin: Yeah. It's also important to set expectations. Explain that raises are not guaranteed each year – that should be made clear to an employee upon hire. You also want to avoid language in things like offer letters, or compensation policies that suggest employees will receive a bonus or increase every year.

Kara: Alright. While we're on the topic of employee morale… How do you approach an employee whose negative attitude is rubbing off on other employees?

Kristin: If you have an employee with a negative attitude, there's probably an underlying reason that may or may not be due to their work environment. They could be unhappy with their supervisor, or certain company practices. Or, perhaps their personal life is spilling over into work. Whatever the case may be, we recommend meeting with the employee in private to discuss how their attitude is impacting the business – again – strive to be as factual as possible. If it is work-related, work with the employee to identify the obstacles and how you might be able to remove them or find compromise

Meryl: And as Kristin alluded to, be mindful that an employee's behavior may be a result of stress or personal issues. If the employee tells you that the issue is not work related, without getting into specifics direct them to resources that may be able to help, such as your employee assistance program.

Kara: What if, despite your best efforts, the employee gets defensive when you're having these conversations? For example, when you have to communicate that they didn't get that promotion…

Kristin: Failing to get a promotion can certainly be deflating. If the employee reacts defensively, let them know that you understand their frustration but stand firm on the decision. Be clear about the skills, knowledge, and experience they need in order to advance in their career and work with them to create a development plan to get that experience and acquire those skills. That said, you want to avoid any implication that they'll get the promotion next time simply by following the steps you outline. It's also important to keep the employee engaged and motivated going forward. Recognize their contributions to the company, express your appreciation for their service, and let them know that you're committed to their career development.

Kara: Alright. So, we've discussed how to handle a few difficult conversations today. Are there cases where not addressing the issue would actually be the best course of action?

Meryl: No, not that I'm aware of. I would say if you have reason to believe that an employee violated company policy, definitely gather the facts and meet with them as soon as possible. Again, addressing the issue early can prevent it from becoming worse, and having even more difficult conversations in the future.

Kristin: I would add that the best things you can do as an employer is to be proactive and transparent. Take steps to help prevent problems from occurring in the first place. For example, an employee handbook is a great way to clearly communicate workplace rules and procedures so that employees know exactly what is expected of them.

Kara: Absolutely. So, Kristin, Meryl, what final advice do you have for employers?

Kristin: Before having a difficult conversation with an employee I would just reiterate how important it is to make sure you've carefully planned what you need to say (as well as what NOT to say) and also think about how you'll say it. Think about how an employee might respond, and possible next steps following that meeting.

Meryl: And remember to be empathetic. Difficult conversations are hard on both sides. Demonstrating that you understand their frustration can help get you to a better place.

Kara: Thank you so much Kristin and Meryl. We want to thank you all for listening to HR{preneur}. I'm Kara Murray. For all the latest episodes, subscribe on Apple Podcasts Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Podcast Overview

HR{preneur}, a podcast by ADP's Small Business Services, is designed to help you get the insight you need in order to tackle day-to-day workplace issues. In each episode, you'll hear from industry experts about the latest in HR, such as the #MeToo movement, evolving marijuana laws, and more. Each episode will be between 10 and 15 minutes long, but full of practical advice. Find us on Apple® Podcasts or visit the HR{preneur} podcast page on Podbean.