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How to have a difficult conversation

How to have a difficult conversation (Last Updated On: August 9, 2016)

Ever heard of a compliment sandwich? The term is used when people provide constructive criticism, when one offers niceties before and after revealing a negative address. This can work when breaking bad news or providing information which significantly impacts somebody. A compliment sandwich doesn’t work in every situation though, so what can employers do when faced with a difficult conversation?

Change in management

Change is inevitable and when it happens businesses need to be able to tell staff in a way that will not differentiate between any employees. Who to tell first? Do you inform everybody? Our advice is to provide your staff with plenty or as much notice as you can.

When breaking big news about impending business change, senior management should be informed first, followed by an all staff meeting to inform all employees at the same time. This will help to elevate mixed messaging or differences in perception. Ensure all managers are prepared to assist employees where possible and welcome the opportunity for employees to talk with you or their manager about the situation.

Inform your staff of change in an opportunist way. Perhaps a predominate, well respected person in your business is moving on. This is sad for employees and may cause concern about this person’s replacement or could even raise doubts about culture and business success moving forward. Encouraging the opportunity to hire from within can motivate employees and lead to a better culture.

Extending probation

Make sure you inform all employees of your expectations from their role from the outset. Have clear job descriptions and employee policies and procedures in place. Keep the employee informed of their performance and implement key performance indicators (KPIs) into their working week. If your employee does not meet these KPIs it should not be a shock to the employee that you will be leading towards the difficult conversation.

Make sure all type of performance related conversations are carried out privately. No employees wants the humiliation of a public performance review.

Performance management

Sometimes, there is a time when an employee’s ship is not sailing very smoothly, and as an employer you need to take charge. Make sure you have the evidence to prove to the employee that things are going wrong. Bringing it to their attention is the most important step to improve the situation. Explain that if the situation does not improve then their performance will be managed. A performance improvement plan will need to be established before this conversation takes place.


The current nature of business means that many companies change and evolve with technological advancements, redundancy is sometimes the best response to these changes. If you are an employer and the nature of your business is changing, you may need to consider redundancy in order to remain profitable. However with this decision comes the responsibility to treat your staff reasonably and fairly.

To summarise, the four key things to remember when having that difficult conversation are:

  • Ensure you treat every employee the same, for every situation
  • For performance related conversations, make sure you have documented the situation to support your concerns
  • One on one difficult conversations must be carried out privately
  • Your employees have a right to respond. Have an open door policy and invite employees to discuss any issue and concerns


If you do not have employment policies and procedures in place to assist these difficult conversations, contact Employsure on 1300 651 415. Employsure equips employers with the tools and the support in order for you to have these difficult conversations. We also understand that it is at these times when most employment relations disputes occur. That’s why Employsure gives you all of the correct information and advice to avoid staff disputes and employment claims. Call us today, we are ready to take your call and talk you through these difficult conversations.

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