How to Deal with Tough Conversations in Human Resources

If there’s one certainty for professionals working in the field of HR, it’s the ongoing need to hold tough conversations. From communicating about layoffs to following up about certain employees’ behavior at the last company party, HR is tasked with working through sticky situations on a continuous basis.

This series will provide a toolkit to handle the toughest conversations that HR has to facilitate. Although some discussions will always be at least a little awkward, by the end of the series you will be fully prepared to carry them out as gracefully as possible.

The No. 1 skill needed in any HR conversation is directness. Many Americans struggle with being direct. Fearing that the recipient of the feedback will make a scene or that the future relationship will be tense, we tiptoe around the issue at hand and try to soften the message by hiding it in praise or minimizing the true impact of the behavior that needs to change.

The role of an HR professional requires tact and diplomacy as well as the proficiency to communicate clearly and directly in contentious conversations. After all, HR generally isn’t called in to bestow promotions and raises. Managers like to take care of delivering the good news themselves.

Conversation #1: Firing an Underperforming Employee

Before moving to the step of firing someone, work with that employee’s manager to make sure that the problems leading to the firing have been clearly communicated. Even if you are operating in a state that allows at-will employment, protect your company by requiring managers to follow up performance conversations with documentation. When you hold the conversation to terminate an employee, be calm and matter-of-fact. Explain the behavior that the employee has displayed, why it’s a problem to the company, and review the steps taken to resolve it. A sample script might look like this.

“Janet, one of our values at ABC Company is ‘speed to execution.’ You have missed five key deadlines over the last quarter. This has caused delays and problems for Team X and Team Y, which depend on your work. Additionally, this resulted in a delay in our product launch that impacted our revenue. Your manager spoke to you about this after each deadline that was missed, but we haven’t seen any improvement.This is why we need to end your employment with ABC Company.”

Conversation #2: Facilitating a Layoff

The key in facilitating a layoff is to work with the executive team to determine a clear rationale of who is being laid off and why. Whether you’re eliminating a department or regional office, or whether the logic is merely “last in, first out,” look for a way to group all of the designated employees together. This serves two purposes. Your organization will have an easier time managing morale for the remaining employees if the layoff appears to be rational rather than capricious. And documenting the rationale for the layoff beforehand will also help should someone decide to sue for a discriminatory termination.

Often companies will use layoffs as an opportunity to eliminate employees who haven’t been performing up to standard. In this case, employees should be made aware that they’re being let go due to performance, but that the company has chosen to technically treat the situation like a layoff for that employee. For the rest of the employees of the layoff, here is a suggested script.

“Based on where the business (product, division, etc.) is right now, today will be your last day. We are eliminating people (based on this logic: the x division, the y office, etc.). Here’s what will happen next. (We would like you to take the next 30 minutes to pack up your desk, etc.)”

Although HR departments have many pleasant conversations with employees each day, it’s the tough conversations that give HR professionals the opportunity to demonstrate true skill in communication. Stay with us for the next article in the series: How to talk about body odor and hygiene in the workplace.