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How to Have a Difficult Conversation With Your Employees

Published October 6, 2016 (last updated on June 7, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Copywriter and Content Creator


Have you ever heard of a compliment sandwich?

The term is used when people provide constructive feedback – when one offers niceties before and after delivering something negative. This can work when breaking bad news or providing information that significantly impacts somebody.

A compliment sandwich is not always the perfect solution, so we have highlighted some scenarios that may cause difficult conversations and highlighted appropriate ways to handle them.

Change in management

Change is inevitable and when it happens businesses need to be able to tell staff in a way that will not discriminate between any employees. You may wonder who you should tell first, when you should break the news and how to handle the conversation?

When breaking big news about business change, senior management should be informed first, followed by a meeting to inform all employees at the same time. This will help to alleviate 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.

Another example is where a predominate, well respected person in your business is moving on. This news can be 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.

Setting expectations

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). 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 types of performance related conversations are carried out privately. No employees wants the humiliation of a public performance review.

Performance management

Sometimes, an employee’s performance is not up to scratch, and as an employer you need to take some action. Make sure you have documents or scenarios to support your claim of poor performance. 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, and redundancy is sometimes the only way. With this decision comes the responsibility to treat your staff reasonably and fairly, and to ensure it is in face a genuine redundancy.

In summary, 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 always have a right to respond. Have an open door policy and invite them to discuss any issue and concerns

Peninsula is a leading workplace relations specialist and can assist in managing all aspects of employment relations, including redundancies, performance management and workplace standards. Call us today on 0800 675 700.

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