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Conversations that Change Employee Behavior

Conversations that Change Employee Behavior

Whether it’s explaining new medical benefits or why a team isn’t getting raises, HR professionals and business owners have difficult conversations of all kinds with employees. But, probably one of the most difficult is dealing with a behavior issue. Want to tell an employee that their team is frustrated by their attitude? Probably not. Confronting difficult employees is rarely a favorite task of an HR professional.

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Effective Employee Feedback Basics

Let’s first review the four steps to giving employee feedback that we covered in an earlier blog post.

Step 1 – Ask if you can give feedback.
Starts with: “May I give you some feedback?”

Step 2 – Describe the specific employee behavior.
Starts with: “When you…”

Step 3 - Describe the impact of the employee behavior on self or others.
Starts with: “Here’s what happens when…”

Step 4 – Discuss next steps.
Starts with: “What can you do differently?” or “Thank you, keep it up.”

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How to Handle Emotional Responses to Difficult Conversations

What do you do if an employee responds with tears, anger, blame, gunny sacking (bringing up other, past grievances that are unrelated) or claims of discrimination? People have different reactions to feeling attacked. They’ll tend to respond with their natural defense mechanisms in a stressful situation. Some will be tearful, some will be angry, some will try to divert the blame somewhere else. What is important is that the manager controls the situation.

The best way to stay in control in an employee conversation is to come from a place of respect. Be respectful of the person and how they are feeling in the situation. Yet, keep in mind that your job in this moment is to have this conversation. In many cases, the employee’s dramatic reaction to feedback has kept them from receiving it over the years. Reinforcing their attempts to get out of the situation is the worst thing you can do.

Examples of Employee Feedback for Emotional Reactions

Crying – (Hand over some Kleenex.) “I can see that this is upsetting for you. Let me give you a moment to compose yourself before we continue.”

Anger – “I understand that this situation is frustrating to you. If you need a minute to walk around the block or calm down, please take it. We’re going to work through this issue to resolution so I need you to be on board.”

Blame – “I understand that there are other people involved in this situation and concerns about other people’s work ethic or productivity but right now this conversation is about you and me. Those other employees will be dealt with in the same respectful manner that you and I are having this conversation in right now. If you have serious concerns about someone else’s work or behavior, you can share those concerns with me another time. But, not today. Today it’s about this conversation is one that you and I need to have about your performance.”

Gunny sacking (bringing up past grievances) – “I understand that you have a lot of concerns and we can schedule some time later to talk about those concerns. But, what we’re going to focus on today is what I brought you in here for. I am willing to talk to you about other issues, but today we’re going to talk about what I brought you in here to talk about.”

Claims of discrimination – “That’s a very serious allegation. To make sure that nothing has happened on my watch, I am going to get the company involved and also HR. We’ll make sure there isn’t any wrong doing because that is not my intent.”

The Most Difficult Employee Conversations

Below are four of the most difficult conversations you can have with an employee and scripted examples of employee feedback for handling them.

Difficult Conversation #1: How to confront an employee who is not meeting performance expectations

This is the most common difficult conversation to have with an employee, and most employers will have this conversation at some point in their career.

Steps for Providing Effective Employee Feedback

Step 1: Ask if you can give feedback
“Mary, I need to give you some feedback about your performance. Can we do that at our meeting scheduled for 2 pm?”

Step 2: Describe the specific behavior
“Mary, I need to talk with you about your performance on the latest marketing proposal that you sent out. I have concerns, because the sales rep told me that your report missed our internal deadline, and therefore it had to be sent out without an internal review. After the fact, the proposal was reviewed and some errors were found in the calculations on page four, as well as some spelling and capitalization errors.”

Step 3: Describe the consequences
“Mary, this is important to the company because without an internal review we could lose a deal for looking unprofessional or we could inadvertently state some promises that we are not able to live up to. These simple mistakes could have big impacts on the company.”

Step 4: Discuss next steps
“Mary, what can you do differently so that this doesn’t happen for the next proposal?”

Difficult Conversation #2: How to confront an employee who doesn’t get along with co-workers

In this situation, the employee may be performing well, but they are not getting along with their co-workers and it could be causing conflict in the office.

Steps for Providing Effective Employee Feedback

Step 1: Identify the issue
“Ben, I need to talk with you about your ability to work well with our team.”

Step 2: Give the evidence
“Ben, I’ve been given feedback from various members of our internal team as well as external vendors that working with you is difficult because you give the impression that you aren’t listening to others by interrupting people and speaking too quickly without listening to what others are saying. In addition, on the Collins project your team members said you ended the brainstorming session early and assigned tasks without any input.”

Step 3: State your expectations
“Ben, I expect that as the Project Manager you have the respect of your team members. I also asked you to lead brainstorming sessions so that the group could come to consensus on how the project would be accomplished.”

Step 4: State the consequences of the employee’s actions
“Ben, your reputation has spread among this office and to our external vendors that you are difficult to work with. Therefore, building a team that is willing to work with you is more difficult. If I cannot find a team to work with you, I won’t have as many projects for you to act as the PM.”

Step 5: Ask the employee what they can do differently
“Ben, this needs to be corrected immediately. What ideas do you have for making this situation better?”

Difficult Conversation #3: How to address compensation questions with an employee who’s found a salary report on the internet

In this particular difficult conversation you have an employee who is constantly wanting to discuss their pay, especially as it compares to the person down the hall or the employees down the street. This person has brought you every Internet report that exists on how much money they should make.

Steps for Providing Effective Employee Feedback

Step 1: Acknowledge the person
“Jenny, thank you for bringing this to my attention. I know that you’ve spent a lot of time doing research. I also know how important this is to you.”

Step 2: Explain the company position
“Jenny, you know that the company is experiencing difficult economic times. With the limited resources that we have available I have made the best decisions possible about increases based on performance and information that I have about market competitiveness.”

Step 3: Explain the basics of the company’s compensation program
“This company takes great care to ensure that we stay competitive with the market. We maintain a salary structure based on a bi-annual market study. Every effort is made to stay competitive with the market within the limits of our budget. I know the HR department takes great care to find market data that is representative of what is happening in our market.”

Step 4: Deflect any discussions about other employees or employees down the street
“Jenny, it would not be fair for me to have a conversation with you about how much Bill makes or the decisions that were made to arrive at his pay. What is important for you and I to discuss is your salary and performance.”

“Jenny, I don’t know the particulars of the salary structure at XYZ company. I also do not know the specifics of the position responsibilities there. I can tell you that our HR company does maintain our salary ranges with the market in mind.”

Step 5: Find a positive way to end the conversation that focuses on the future
“Jenny, now that you understand how my hands are tied regarding additional compensation, let’s talk a bit about your career goals over the next 3 years. If we can focus on the growth opportunities that exist and how you can prepare yourself then that might be the best way to get additional compensation.”

Difficult Conversation #4: How to discuss pay issues with a top performer who is only getting a 3 percent increase

One of the most difficult conversations to have at this time of year is the conversation with your top performer who is only going to get a 3 percent raise based on the budget for increases.

Steps for Providing Effective Employee Feedback

Step 1: Start with a summary of the person’s accomplishments
“Sam, as I think back to what you’ve accomplished this year, I am amazed. When you were hired here 11 months ago, I had no idea that you were going to be able to roll out the new product ahead of schedule and under budget. I didn’t expect that all our procedures around procurement would be documented and that you would receive such wonderful feedback from your team members. You have far exceeded my expectations for performance this year.”

Step 2: Talk about the company position
“I don’t think it will come as a surprise to you that despite these great accomplishments and many others by our team, that the company is experiencing economic distress. Our board of directors has decided to reduce our cash spend as much as possible to preserve cash.”

Step 3: Acknowledge what it means for the employee
“As a result, the maximum amount of increase that I am authorized to hand out this year is 3 percent. I know that this dollar amount is not reflective of your outstanding performance, but I hope you understand that budget was the limiting factor this year.”

Step 4: Focus on the future
“Sam, I am limited in what I can give you in terms of cash compensation, but I am committed to rewarding you for your outstanding performance. What are some ways that the company can show its appreciation for your accomplishments?”

“Sam, I am committed to helping you achieve the professional goals you have for your career, let’s talk about where you’d like to be in the next couple of years in your career, and how I can help you get there.”


Stacey Carroll

Director of Customer Service and Education

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Stacey Carroll
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