Tips for Tough Employee Discussions

How to protect yourself and your company when handling the tough stuff! 

One of the hardest things about owning a business, can be the tough employee discussions you have to have.

Performance issues and terminations can cause issues not only in the court of law, but in your office itself. It can take an emotional toll on everyone involved, especially if you have not properly prepared yourself and your managers for the task.

We have a few tips that we like to review with our clientele. You can download the full checklist directly on our free library of forms.

First, do not delay.

Understandably, many of us defer uncomfortable confrontations. One of our go to mottos is to hire slow, but fire quick. Not too quick where you do not have your ducks in a row, what we mean is that moving the problem around your company is not going to make anything better. Delaying only gives the employee power to make a pre-emptive strike. If you must defer the discussion, document what the conversation will be about, when it will occur and why you have to wait to talk at that particular time.

Second, avoid chit chat.

Get to the point. People often try to break the ice at the beginning of a difficult conversation with casual chatter. It is understandable but problematic. No good can come from starting with “How is your daughter recovering from her surgery?” Well-intentioned though it may be, this question could result in a discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Treat the person respectfully, but don’t engage in small talk to put off the issue. Acknowledge immediately that this is going to be a difficult conversation about serious performance issues. When starting a termination meeting, the first thing we typically say is that “Unfortunately, today will be your last day at the company.” This sets the tone and leaves no room for confusion or pushback. The decision has been made. If the conversation is not necessarily a termination meeting, it is still important to state up front the seriousness of the conversation.

Third, be sure your documentation is prepared for employee discussions.

Have your talking points lined out by an HR professional to ensure you stay on topic. Be sure to have the documentation to back up the conversation or the termination. For example, emails, corrective actions, performance improvement plans, etc.

Avoid Absolutes

Absolutes are risky. We like to remember to always avoid always and never say never. Not only in business but in life. It takes only one example to the contrary, and the statement you have made is no longer accurate and may be evidence of pretext. The argument: You are exaggerating in an attempt to “get” the employee because he or she is [fill in the protected category]. In difficult discussions, it’s better to say “almost always” or “almost never.”

Bottom line, keep it simple, stay on track, do not allow the employee to take the conversation and run with it.

If the employee starts to get emotional or off topic, recenter to the reason for the conversation in the first place, which is – the employee’s performance is not where it needs to be for the success of the business, and that is why this conversation is happening. 

You can find the rest of these pointers about managing Employee Discussions and the complete checklist by signing up for our free library of forms at


    Also, you can take our free HR self-assessment to see if you are covered by clicking HERE!