how to have those difficult conversations with your employees

Expectations are the bedrock of the employment relationship!

When employees are behaving poorly, or seem unable to perform, difficult conversations must be had - but how do you go about doing this?


Sep 21, 2021

Let's face it, we all hate tackling negative behaviours, but often the cumulative impact of NOT addressing bad habits substantially outweighs the good when that behaviour starts impacting badly on morale, retention and productivity.

Changing that established pattern of behaviour then becomes problematic.

Identify the Issue

Identifying whether an issue is performance based or disciplinary based is critical to handling the issue well (and in doing so, exposing your business to the least risk). Performance issues are task or skills based, generally measurable, and usually appear in the job advert when recruiting. Disciplinary issues can be poor or unprofessional behaviour or minor misconduct including but not limited to: repeated absenteeism, shirking responsibilities, not following rules, policies or procedures, or undermining other employee relationships with bad behaviour.

The below key considerations need to be accounted for before an Employer can legitimately claim poor performance.

  1. How much training has this person had?
  2. Has the training been provided in a dedicated manner and formalised (ie written down) or was it ad hoc and while they are trying to complete other tasks?
  3. If asked to describe what their role is, could they do that comprehensively, and what would their expectations be of the role?
  4. How does this person learn? We all learn differently – some people take notes; some people learn through doing; others learn through watching.

True performance issues require careful handling and documentation; and there is a high threshold to meet to be able to justifiably dismiss for poor performance. Depending on whether the role is safety sensitive or not, and whether the performance is impacting other employees’ safety, it can take up to 6 months to gather enough evidence to satisfy the Employment Relations Authority (ERA).


What is required:

To implement a Performance Improvement Programme (PIP) both the employer and employee must agree on a clear plan. This requires:

  • A thorough job description clearly setting out the tasks and level of competency required; and
  • A clear plan to assist in improving these skills; and
  • Dedicated time each week for training sessions and reviewing improvement; and
  • A timeline whereby if the required improvement is not met, disciplinary action may be taken; and
  • A formal review date set at the end of the agreed period (usually 6-8 weeks) where all the principles of natural justice are met, specifically:
    • the employee must be invited to the formal meeting with a letter stating the areas of concern and the reasons for meeting;
    • the employee must be provided with a copy of any evidence that may be relied upon for decision making;
    • the employee is notified they have a right to representation,
    • the employee has an opportunity to have their say, and what they say is genuinely considered
    • the meeting must be recorded in writing
  • At the review meeting, the outcomes of the PIP should be reviewed, and depending on the improvement (or not), the PIP can be extended or closed.
  • If considering termination because the performance has been so poor, another formal meeting must be scheduled with all the above components. The threshold is high for this, so seek advice before acting.
  • If the PIP is being extended, it must have an end date (and again, a formal review meeting).
  • If the PIP is being closed, it must be done so with a letter outlining the parameters of the PIP, the improvements that have occurred and a statement of closure.

Clear communication is essential, so utilising tools to help ensure clarity is particularly helpful. One of the best tools we have come across is the Fact, Impact, Reason + Respect and Request model (also known as the Situation-Behaviour-Impact tool).

  • Fact: these are indisputable elements that you can see or hear - they are observable and certain. Opinions are a belief or judgement-based observation that can cause people to become defensive – so stick to the facts.
  • Impact: Once the facts are established, consider what impact these behaviours are having on productivity, other employees, and team collaboration. Describe these impacts in a non-emotive way. “When you are late for the meeting, the client is inconvenienced.”
  • Reason & Respect: identify the potential reason for the behaviours and seek to educate that person on why this is not helpful. Convey this respectfully by acknowledging that the intent was genuine.
  • Request: Give a specific, measurable action with a view to future behaviours and expected outcomes.

Example: You missed the deadline for a key project yesterday (Fact). Because you missed the deadline, a client meeting scheduled for today was delayed (Impact). I know you didn’t intend to miss the deadline and for the client to have to wait (Reason + Respect). Moving forward, I expect you to flag with me earlier rather than later if you are struggling to meet deadlines so that I can assist, and our clients aren’t inconvenienced (Request).

Prevention is far preferable to cure in this instance this is why it is important for all employers to have clear and comprehensive job descriptions included in their IEAs; along with rules, policies and procedures (or House Rules) clearly documented, including a code of conduct. This gives clarity and certainty to all parties BEFORE performance becomes a problem.

If the behaviours that are impacting the workplace are disciplinary, then following a step-by-step disciplinary process to ensure the principles of natural justice are adhered to is key.

See helpful resources click on the links below: 

FIRR Method: Removing emotion in difficult conversations – Yellow Heart Company

Chat to us about your needs and we can help build a plan that works for you. 

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