Navigating Difficult Conversations with Confidence: Key Strategies for Employers

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Navigating difficult conversations with employees is an in inevitable aspect of roles that have managerial or HR responsibilities.

Naturally, many managers find the prospect of having such discussions daunting either because the subject matter is sensitive or contentious or because of the working relationship that has been established with this employee. Quite often these conversations are delayed or not conducted at all for these reasons or because managers may not possess the skills to execute them.

Our article provides employers with guidance on the correct approach in navigating these discussions and developing the right skill and mindset to make it as comfortable as possible. Please note however that this article is not connected to protected conversations which is a completely different process and our earlier article on this can be accessed here.


The type of behaviour that necessitates a difficult conversation in the workplace is not always clear however, in our experience it usually entails issues such as poor performance, misconduct, dealing with personal problems, investigating complaints or grievances, and other general matters such as personality clashes.

It is important to bear in mind that these conversations should not be a substitute to a formal process but rather, a precursor to a formal process. Having a conversation with an employee on an informal basis may resolve the problem however it depends entirely on the subject matter. If it does not resolve the problem, then you would need to consider proceeding to a formal process. In many cases, particularly more serious issues like misconduct, you would bypass the conversation altogether and proceed straight to a formal process.


If difficult conversations do not take place when needed, it can be detrimental to both the employer and employee. For the employer, it can be damaging especially in the cases of misconduct, complaints or personality clashes because if it is not dealt with, the problem could escalate and impact the wider workforce.  Not dealing with these types of issues also sends a message to other staff that the conduct in question is acceptable or that informal concerns raised are being ignored which can damage the productivity and morale of the business. The employee who is the cause of the issue may remain and you then lose the staff that you value.

It’s also damaging to the employee because you are misleading them into thinking that there is no problem and denying them the opportunity to improve or put things right.


Handling difficult conversations with employees is a crucial skill for managers. It creates a culture that supports open dialogue between staff and employees are more likely to approach their managers about sensitive matters if managers have built trust and confidence with employees. Here are our top tips that you can follow to navigate these conversations effectively:

  • Preparation – Establishing the facts and reflecting on what you know about the employee is essential. Document preparation is also key especially on issues such as attendance, performance or misconduct. Consideration should also be given to extenuating circumstances such as sickness or their personal circumstances. Preparing a script to use in the meeting will assist in getting the most out of the conversation and to make important points to the employee that you could forget otherwise. You should also remind the employee at the outset of the conversation that they are not permitted to record the conversation. Covert recordings are more and more common now and so our advice is to either agree with the employee that the meeting will be recorded by you or just take notes and advise that no recordings are permitted. The former is our preference because of the rise in covert recordings and the time often wasted on trying to agree the content of the minutes at a later stage.
  • Policies – You will need to check your internal policies and procedures as that will usually give you a framework on action that you need to take, depending on the nature of the matter. Examples include dress code policy, social media policy, behaviour outside of work and disciplinary process. If your policies already refer to meetings being recorded by you, you will not need the consent referred to above.
  • Communication – Time should be taken to clarify your thoughts and emotions before initiating the conversation. Careful consideration will need to be given to what the desired outcome is and how you can convey your message clearly, professionally and respectfully.
  • Active listening – Allow the employee to share their perspective and listen attentively without interrupting. Pay attention to not only to what they say but also to their body language and emotions. This also assists in producing accurate notes of the meeting if you need to decide on the outcome after the meeting.
  • Staying in control – This is an important skill for managers as it will be for you to control the meeting and how it progresses. You may initiate the conversation with a certain approach but then realise you need to change your approach (for example, you may start off friendly but then realise you need to adopt a firmer style in order to bring the meeting to a close and agree a way forward). However, it is equally important to be prepared to negotiate particularly if the employee is acknowledging the problem and is ready to reach a compromise and agree a way forward.
  • Agreeing a way forward – Ultimately, the whole point of the difficult conversation is to deal with the problem and find a solution with the employee. Therefore, the conversation should end with a plan to move forward. This could include asking the employee for their proposals to resolve the situation and discussing the options. However, as the manager you should be able to make the decision and it is always best practice to arrange a follow-up meeting and offer the employee any other support.

We regularly advise businesses on managing HR issues including how to manage difficult conversations. In our experience, early intervention is better for both the employer and employee. If you’re stuck in a difficult situation with an employee and do not know how to move forward, then please contact our Employment team for support.

(April 2024)