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Having difficult conversations at work: how HR can help

difficult conversations at work

All managers will face conversations with their team members that they expect to be difficult at some stage in their career. These might include addressing poor performance with an employee, investigating reports of workplace bullying or inappropriate behaviour, discussing sensitive personal issues or informing an employee that their position is at risk of redundancy.

In any walk of life, having a difficult conversation with someone can feel daunting and it is easy to think that not broaching the subject at all will make it ‘go away’ or resolve itself without the need for a frank conversation at all. When in fact, ignoring the problem will only make it worse.

Human nature means the response to a difficult conversation is inevitably unpredictable and as such, having them in the first place is hugely challenging for managers. To boot, during a webinar hosted by Sue Ingram of Converse Well as part of our HR Expert Webinar series, a poll found that 81% of HR leaders had received no formal training on what to actually say in a difficult conversation.

And yet, as an HR manager, you’ve probably had your fair share of awkward, difficult or uncomfortable conversations with employees around your workplace for all manner of reasons. You are often an employee’s first port of call if any problematic situation arises.

At the heart of every difficult conversation are some of HR’s most valued principles: empathy, discretion, pragmatism and process. Read on to find out how HR can guide their managers to follow these core principles when having those difficult conversations with their team.


Being empathetic in your difficult conversations with employees can make a big difference to not only how they react, but how they perceive their managers moving forwards.

You never know what is going on in someone’s personal life that may be causing their performance to drop. Being empathetic should be the foundation on which managers have difficult conversations with employees and they should demonstrate compassion and understanding.

There may well be a valid reason behind an employee’s poor performance or behaviour. Unless your managers listen carefully and give individuals the chance to share their point of view, you’ll never know precisely what the issue is and whether you can help to resolve it. Make your employees feel heard and be an empathetic listener.

Difficult conversations shouldn’t be seen as a box-checking exercise, but a concerted effort on an employer’s part to recognise an issue and take remedial action while supporting an employee. 


Naturally, the reason why you’re having a difficult conversation with an employee could be sensitive in nature, it could cause embarrassment or anxiety.

Ensure your managers understand the importance of discretion and don’t have conversations that are difficult in the middle of the office. The very nature of these conversations mean that could become emotionally-charged very quickly so it is important they take place somewhere they won’t be overhead or disturbed, at a time when your manager is able to give their team member their full attention.


As mentioned in the previous point, difficult conversations at work can mean emotions are running high. Your managers should be able to be pragmatic and ensure any conversations with an individual employee remains focused and productive.

Your managers should be able to frame their conversation based on the facts of the specific incident, concern or behaviour of the employee involved and outline why they are having this conversation today.

In the case of misconduct or bad behaviour, your managers should be explaining why it is an issue and how it conflicts with your company’s policy and your expectations of employees. In the case of redundancy however, your managers should be explaining in a compassionate manner how your business has arrived at this decision, that you’ve considered all other alternatives and a process has been followed. 


Your managers should be providing employees with a clear plan of action to address the issue that has been discussed and ensures they understand what is expected of them. You might choose to create goals for the employee with a timeline for showing progress.

The contents and outcome of any difficult conversation should be documented, along with an action plan should you choose to create one. This should be shared with the employee and with HR and should detail the points discussed and your expectations for improvement. Your managers should also set up regular follow-up meetings to discuss an employee’s progress, answer any questions and provide a one-to-one channel of communication between manager and employee.