5 Difficult Conversations Due to COVID-19 and How to Handle Them

man sitting on living room floor on phone with laptop and papers

Before having a difficult conversation with an employee, make sure you have carefully planned not only what information you need to convey but also how you will deliver it.

Difficult conversations with employees come with the territory of being an employer. However, the challenges brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic has taken this to a new level. Whether it's about potential exposure to COVID-19, a pay freeze or furlough, or some other issue, these conversations must be handled consistently and with care. Here are some general guidelines for having difficult conversations as well as a few scenarios to consider.

General Guidelines:

Here are some general guidelines for handling these types of conversations:

  • Be proactive. Take steps to help prevent problems from occurring in the first place. Use an employee handbook and regular staff meetings to clearly communicate workplace rules and procedures so that employees know exactly what is expected of them.
  • Address the issue promptly. If you have reason to believe that an employee violated company policy, immediately gather the facts, conduct a prompt investigation where necessary, and meet with the employee as soon as possible. Addressing the issue early on can prevent it from becoming worse, leading to even more difficult conversations in the future.
  • Have a private conversation with the employee. Schedule a conversation between the employee and a manager or HR representative who has the training and experience to handle difficult conversations. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a face-to-face conversation was generally considered a best practice for such conversations, but employers must now consider whether an in-person conversation is necessary given the situation. When an in-person meeting isn't required, schedule a video conversation with the employee. For disciplinary or termination meetings, consider having another manager act as a witness to the conversation.
  • Be empathetic but straightforward. Let employees know that you understand the information you deliver may be difficult to hear, but don't dance around the issue. If an employee violated company policy, clearly tell them exactly what the problem is, what steps they must take to correct it, and the consequences of failing to do so.
  • Give the employee an opportunity to speak. During the meeting, give the employee an opportunity to comment and ask questions to ensure they fully understand the issue.


Below are several scenarios that may necessitate difficult conversations during the pandemic.

#1: An employee tests positive for COVID-19 and you want to inform those who have had close contact.

If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, inform other employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality (that is, don't reveal who has the illness). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to keep all medical information confidential, even if it isn't about a disability. Many states may have similar laws.

Provide the close contact with federal, state, local, and company rules and guidelines for these situations. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control states that anyone who has had close contact with someone with COVID-19 should stay home for at least 14 days from the last contact and watch for symptoms. If applicable, let the close contact know they'll be allowed to work from home. If the employee is unable to telework and is entitled to leave under applicable laws or company policy, notify the employee of these rights (some leave laws require such notice).

#2: An employee calls in sick during the pandemic and you want to protect other employees from potential exposure to COVID-19.

During a pandemic, federal law allows employers to ask employees if they're experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus. Therefore, under federal law, if an employee calls in sick, you may refer to the latest federal, state, and local guidelines on COVID-19 symptoms and ask whether the employee is experiencing each symptom.

If the employee has any of the COVID-19 symptoms, follow applicable federal, state, and local rules and guidance and let the employee know what steps they need to take before they return to work.

Maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.

#3: An employee is violating dress and grooming policies.

During the pandemic, many employers have relaxed their dress codes, but some employees may take it too far or the stress of the pandemic could result in poor hygiene, body odor, and other issues. In either case, this can have a negative effect on clients, customers, and co-workers. Consider these guidelines for addressing this type of issue:

  • Be tactful but direct. Set the stage by letting the employee know that you plan to discuss a difficult topic. In some cases, the employee may be unaware that a problem exists and may need specific information about what the problem is. Provide an explanation of the issue, treating the employee with respect. Use factual terms and avoid judgmental language. Cite your policy (if applicable) and describe how the employee's conduct is affecting the business.
  • Understand workers' rights. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the ADA and similar state laws, employers may be required to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, and for an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, unless it creates an undue hardship on the business. For example, an employer that requires employees to be clean-shaven might need to make an exception for individuals who maintain beards as part of their religious practices.
  • Never assume you know the cause. Hygiene problems may be caused by a variety of factors, including medical issues, cultural differences, mental health issues, personal problems, or poor grooming habits. Never assume that any one of these factors is the cause and be mindful of nondiscrimination laws when addressing a hygiene issue.
  • Set expectations and document. At the end of the meeting, clearly communicate your expectations and next steps. Document the conversation, what actions need to be taken to address the issue, and the potential consequences of failing to rectify the issue. If an accommodation is the solution, document the discussion with the employee, the possible options for accommodation, and how the accommodation will be implemented. Once implemented, periodically check in with the employee to ensure that the accommodation is effective.

#4: Pay raises won't be provided this year.

If you typically give annual pay increases but are unable to, consider these tips to help manage employee morale:

  • Set expectations. While employees may be accustomed to annual pay raises or bonuses, explain that they are not guaranteed each year. Avoid language that implies that employees automatically receive a bonus or increase and communicate the factors the company considers before awarding pay increases.
  • Use a multi-pronged approach. When a pay freeze is necessary, be straightforward with employees about the difficult situation the company is facing. Consider announcing the freeze as early as possible and then follow up with each affected employee.
  • Explain that you considered other options. Acknowledge that the decision was difficult for the company and that you considered all available options before reaching your conclusion. Where appropriate, consider asking employees for ideas to help improve business processes and reduce costs.
  • Look for other ways to recognize employees. If you're unable to give merit increases, you can still recognize employee performance in other ways, such as an "Employee of the Month" program, an announcement in company communications, a note from a supervisor, or special privileges.

#5: A furlough or layoff is necessary.

Here are some guidelines for communicating with employees about furloughs and layoffs:

  • Comply with notice requirements. Several laws may govern what type and how much notice employers need to give their employees prior to a furlough, layoff, or plant closing. Due to COVID-19, states may suspend or alter these requirements. Additionally, some states require advance notice of any reduction in pay. Absent a specific notice requirement, provide as much notice as possible.

Note: Some states and local jurisdictions have enacted predictive scheduling laws. These laws generally require employers to follow certain scheduling practices, including providing a certain amount of advance notice before making changes to employees' schedules. Be sure to check to see if you are subject to such a law. Some jurisdictions, including Oregon, are providing guidance on these laws in light of COVID-19.

  • Be clear, concise, and compassionate. Keep in mind that employees may not know what a furlough or layoff means, and there is no universal definition of these terms. Clearly and concisely describe the action you are taking in terms your employees will understand. For instance, "as a result of a decline in business activity, we are requiring employees to take unpaid time off. Your unpaid time off will start on [Date] and is anticipated to end on [Date]. During this time, you won't be permitted to perform any work for the company. Unfortunately, because there is still a significant amount of uncertainty, this end date may change and isn't guaranteed." Also be compassionate in delivering the news by stating that you know this will have a significant impact on them and that you considered alternatives before reaching your conclusion.
  • Address final pay and benefits. Be prepared to provide information about the employee's final pay and benefits during the meeting if applicable. There are federal and state rules for providing final pay and certain notices to employees. Additionally, depending on your state, you may be required to include accrued, unused vacation and paid time off in the employee's final pay. Some states have final pay laws that may be implicated by a furlough. Generally, though, short-term furloughs with a definite return date (that is clearly communicated to employees) don't trigger final pay requirements. Thus, any pay owed to the employee would be due on their next regular payday. However, some states may have stricter rules. For example, in California, a furlough longer than 10 days or a normal pay period (if shorter) should be considered a layoff. If it is a layoff, final wages and all accrued but unused vacation and PTO must be paid out immediately. Make sure you comply with all applicable requirements.
  • Provide separation information. Several states require employers to provide a separation notice detailing, among other things, the reason for, and date of, the separation. In some cases, these notices are given directly to the employee. Other states require employers to send the notices directly to the state unemployment agency. Some states also require employers to provide written information about unemployment compensation and other benefits at the time of separation or furlough. Check your state requirements to ensure compliance.


Before having a difficult conversation with an employee, make sure you have carefully planned not only what information you need to convey but also how you will deliver it.

Get more insights and best practices by visiting our COVID-19 Small Business Resource Center.

Get customizable email templates and in-depth information on direct deposit, recent legislation and other valuable topics in the COVID-19 Employee Communications Toolkit.

This article was originally published as an "ADP HR Tip of the Week" which is a communication created for ADP's small business clients.