the 3 toughest conversations managers need to have

From delivering a poor performance evaluation to addressing hygiene issues, part of being a manager is tackling some tough conversations with team members.

Here are three of the toughest conversations that managers may need to have in their career … and the secrets to handling them well.

1. Delivering a poor performance evaluation. Delivering negative feedback can be hard in any circumstance; when you’re doing it the context of an overall poor assessment of a person’s work, it’s even tougher. A poor performance evaluation isn’t just saying “you need to improve your client management skills” or “let’s work on your meeting facilitation skills”; it’s saying “overall, you’re doing poorly in your job, and we need to see some serious changes for you to continue in the role.” For most managers, that’s a hard message to deliver, and obviously a hard one for the employee to hear.

How to approach it: Hopefully you’ve been giving the employee feedback throughout the years, so the poor evaluation won’t be a surprise (although it’s often still tough to see an overall low ranking, something that even regular feedback doesn’t always prepare people for). Remember that you’d be doing the employee a huge disservice if you didn’t talk candidly about the problems you see, and that direct, straightforward conversation and where things stand is what will give the person the best chance of ultimately being able to make the changes you need.

2. Talking to an employee about body odor or other hygiene issues. If you’re lucky, you might make it through your whole career without ever having to have this conversation. But if you do ever have an employee with hygiene issues, you’ve got to speak up because it will affect the way your employee is perceived (and potentially affect the way your company is perceived, if the person is client-facing).

How to approach it: Ask to talk privately with the employee at the end of the day (so the person isn’t stuck at work for hours afterwards, feeling self-conscious). Be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. For example, you might say: “I want to bring up something that’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. I have noticed you have had a noticeable odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don’t realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it.”

3. Announcing a decision that you know will make people unhappy. Everyone likes the part of management where you get to give people good news – a raise, a cool new perk, great feedback from the CEO on someone’s pet project. But sometimes you’ll be the one delivering news that you know will be a blow to people, whether it’s a shift in strategy that your team opposed or a process change that will make people’s work lives harder.

How to approach it: Explain the reason behind the decision, what considerations were taken into account, and why other options weren’t chosen. Even when people don’t like the decision, they’re more likely to accept it if they understand why it was made. Also, if you have the chance to get people’s input before the decision is made, make sure that you do. Not only will that help you reach a better decision, but people are likelier to be happy with the outcome if they feel their voices were heard. (But don’t do this if their input won’t actually matter; that’s a good way to turn people cynical.)

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Lily Rowan*

    Can we talk more about giving negative feedback? I looked through archives and didn’t find much. I have to have a pretty serious non-formal review chat with someone tomorrow, and I’ve never done this before! I guess what I need to do is focus on specifics and think up suggestions for what and how specifically to improve. Anything else I should be thinking about?

    1. fposte*

      Target date? And is this the first time they’ve had it noted, or is it just that the informal “Hey, don’t [foo]” events have mounted up and the foo continues?

      1. Lily Rowan*

        The person already got a review saying, “You have X amount of time to shape up.” We’re a little more than halfway to X and I don’t think they are shaping up enough.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, that’s rough, but I think you’re wise to do a midway conversation. Can you ask them why they think X isn’t happening? And make absolutely clear what the consequences for lack of improvement are and have them confirm they understand?

          1. Lily Rowan*

            Thanks — that’s helpful in thinking it through. The consequences are what I have to figure out!

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              If you told them they had X amount of time to shape up, the implication is firing at the end of it. Is that not what you meant when that was laid out originally?

              1. Lily Rowan*

                That’s the rub — I wasn’t the one who told them to shape up in the first place. I’ve inherited the situation, and now have to decide if I would give them more time than was originally intended. Or if I’m just scared to think about firing someone!

                1. Creag an Tuire*

                  Do you feel like they’re trying to shape up but the original length of time is simply unreasonable? Or are they just waiting out the clock?

                2. Lily Rowan*

                  I think it’s that the original length of time was unreasonable, but am slightly afraid I am fooling myself!

                3. Ad Astra*

                  Something to consider: Does this employee have the resources to shape up in the way you want her to? Does she need additional training? Does she need more specific feedback (like “You need to be more reliable” compared to “You need to meet deadlines consistently and respond to requests within 24 hours”)? Have you seen any improvement at all? What about effort?

                  I tend to lean harder toward keeping an employee than some AAM readers do, though.

                4. Lily Rowan*

                  Thank you all so much. I don’t want to get too specific (the walls have ears!), but these are the things I need to think about beforehand!

  2. #1 OP*

    A realistic timeline might be an idea, and if there are bigger things to improve, I would break them down into milestones, so you can check in then and see how things are going. Good luck!

  3. Bwmn*

    This has been brought up before – but I just wanted to emphasize #2 that opening the discussion to more than just showering/deodorant is really important. As someone who survived a teenage brother/worked with teens for a while – showering often happens daily whereas if laundry/sheet changing is happening once a month (if that), that is huge with odor. And in cases where families rely on laundromats and money is tight, issues of finance and time play into this as well.

    There are also environmental factors (pet hygiene, mold problems) that can also pose problems to overall odor as well as health issues. So I just definitely want to stress that a conversation about deodorant, a shower, and perhaps Febreeze will not only be awkward but possibly not come close to fixing the problem.

    1. the_scientist*

      YES THIS! Laundry is hugely important- infrequently or improperly cleaned sheets and/or towels = huge odor problem. Living in a basement apartment with mold and poor ventilation = potential huge odor problem.

      Heck, a few months after moving in to my new apartment, it became clear that the HE front-loading washing machine hadn’t been cleaned in, oh, probably forever, and my towels and clothes started to stink! It took me about 4 days to solve the problem and luckily I own enough work-appropriate clothing that I could make that happen, but if I didn’t, I would have been smelling a bit weird for a couple of days.

      1. Bwmn*

        The magic that is the basement and/or poor ventilation apartment with the misery of things like towels that struggle to completely dry. I think that these type of issues are so important because a lot of these issues comes with the thinking of “don’t they know they smell/how were they raised?” Someone living in a basement apartment for the first time or having their first pet as an adult may not immediately realize that their standard practices all of a sudden has become a *big* problem.

        I had an apartment that had some insane mold problem where it was a while before I realized there was a large quantity of clothing/shoes that needed to be thrown out due to being infested/unable to be salvaged. Also, even if money isn’t the problem with laundromats/laundry services – it can be a lot more time than just tossing a load in the machine at home and dealing with it at your leisure.

        Obviously, if it’s a professional problem – it needs to be addressed. But the likelihood of a Speedstick fixing most problems that rise to this level of concern I expect to be far more rare.

      2. Ad Astra*

        This also could be a situation where the employee occasionally suspects they (or their clothes) might stink, but brushes it off as paranoia. A gentle comment from someone that yeah, you noticed, can get immediate results — so don’t wait to have this conversation!

        My secret for getting sweat/pet urine/other gross smells out of clothes is throwing a cup of vinegar in the wash. If it’s really bad, I’ll soak it in vinegar and water before I toss it into the wash. Also, stop using fabric softener, especially on synthetic fabrics.

        1. Talvi*

          +1 for vinegar! I’ve started using vinegar in lieu of fabric softener lately, and I’m quite pleased. Supposedly, vinegar is also supposed to help keep whites white and colours from fading, although I haven’t been using it long enough yet to be able to confirm that. (I will happily extol the wonders of vinegar as a cleaner to anyone who will listen…)

          1. the_scientist*

            If you’ve ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there’s the running joke of how the elderly Greek father uses Windex as a cure-all. That’s how my entire family is with vinegar- I clean with it, I cook with it, and I do my laundry with it! I also use diluted Apple Cider Vinegar as a toner/hair treatment. White vinegar is the legit best.

    2. anonanonanon*

      Yes, agreed. I sometimes think people don’t realize that getting to the laundromat can be a hassle in itself, but it’s also pretty expensive. I don’t have laundry in my building and one load is $5.00 to wash and $3.00 to dry for an hour. The machines are tiny, so if I have to wash a load of clothes and all my sheets, that’s at least $16. Not everyone is lucky enough to have laundry in their buildings…or free laundry.

      (I don’t wash my sheets or towels as much as I should, but it really is a pain to have to lug them all to a laundromat blocks away and there’s no way in hell I want to get on the subway with a giant bag of laundry.)

  4. nofelix*

    A question I have is how to approach giving a poor evaluation where for whatever reason, the employee has no warning of what’s coming. I guess just soften it a lot since they haven’t yet had a proper opportunity to improve.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        You know, I agree with that wholeheartedly — but it’s also true that evaluations are a time when you step back to reflect more deeply about how someone is doing than you might normally do in the rush of day to day work, which means that you might spot patterns that might not have struck you as patterns before. So while it’s absolutely true that nothing in an evaluation should be a surprise, that doesn’t mean that you forfeit the right to raise real issues if you haven’t addressed them previously. The key, I think, is to acknowledge it by saying something like, “I know that I’ve never raised this before and frankly I should have, but in reflecting on the past year, I realized that X is important.”

        1. Ad Astra*

          I have been blindsided by every negative review I’ve ever gotten, and this gives some insight as to what might have happened. At my last job, the review process was pretty formal, including a lot of specific questions that could have led my manager into seeing patterns or remembering incidents that might not otherwise come to mind. Still felt pretty rotten, though.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      You need to give feedback more than once or twice a year. If you notice an employee screwing up, approach her or him about it immediately (not in a threatening way, but just to point it out). It’s better than pretending as if everything is okay for months and then saving up a list of things the employee screwed up on.

    2. Sadsack*

      How does the employee have a proper opportunity to improve if not told exactly what they’re doing wrong, what they should do to fix it, and the time frame in which they are expected to show improvement?

    3. Katie the Fed*

      I usually frame it as looking forward in those circumstances. So, less a critique of the past year and more things to work on going forward.

  5. AJS*

    I once had to have a talk with an employee who had an incontinence problem and was leaving evidence of it on every chair she used. I’ve never been so apprehensive about any conversation, before or since. How do you, as a 35-year-old man, tell a 55-year-old woman that she needs a doctor, an adult diaper, or both?

    It went better than expected, but I still never want to have to do that kind of thing again.

    1. cuppa*

      I’ve had to do this too, and it was single-handedly the worst conversation I’ve ever had to have.

    2. Kelly*

      I have not had that conversation – and I just won’t – but we have a gal who is quite large and uses powder in her nether regions. It’s on the bathroom floor — and yes, puffs through her britches onto every chair she sits on. She keeps a pad on her own chair at her desk but doesn’t take it with her to other chairs (conference room, label making computer desk, etc.). Yeah, how would that go? “Could you please clean up your powder puffs when you’ve left the conference room?” Nooooo. Not going to go there.

  6. mp3*

    The format I usually use starts with the question, “Can I give you a little feedback?” It sounds softer than, “I need to give you some feedback” but it lets the person know what is coming so that they can orient themselves to the conversation. If this is a repeat conversation, I jump in with, “We’ve met before to talk about X, but it is continuing to be an issue.”

    Then I talk about what I am observing and the impact it is having. I ask if the person has any thoughts or concerns they want to talk about regarding this issue/event. I listen and ask questions.

    Then I state my expectations, and if there are consequences to not meeting those expectations, I outline them. If termination is a possible consequence for continuing to not meet expectations, I state this explicitly.

    Finally, I suggest a timeline for following up together and let them know that if they think about this for a while and have questions, they should definitely come and ask. And if they need any help in meeting the expectations, they should definitely come and ask.

    I follow up with an email recapping what was discussed, what is expected, what consequences were discussed, and the timeline for follow up.

  7. Sarahnova*

    Alison, I think your non-linear numbering system has struck again – the body of the post talks about 4 conversations but the headline says 3.

  8. College Career Counselor*

    Hardest conversations would probably also include, “we’re letting you go.” Although that’s also in the “delivering bad news” camp. It is especially difficult if said employee is performing well.

  9. julie*

    the hardest for me was a conversation about what my employee was wearing to work that I had to have a few years ago. I was based in a satellite office of our company, so one of the higher ups called me to tell me that someone I manage was wearing inappropriately short dresses and…to make it even more uncomfortable…bending over in them and accidentally exposing herself. She was young and it wasn’t purposeful, but wow that was a truly uncomfortable thing to have to talk about (glad it is over and that it didn’t happen again)!

  10. Kelly*

    I’ve had the “you stink” conversation with an employee. Their response? Chew gum for the bad breath, burn an oil candle in their office to mask the body smell and use cornstarch/cocoa powder to take the greasy shine out of their hair. Surely that was more effort than actually bathing and brushing their teeth… siiiiigh!

  11. BeckyDaTechie*

    So, having been part of 4 of those “negative feedback” conversations at my new job, I find myself stymied. I’m getting consistent concerns about “rudeness to coworkers” but not seeing dates of incidents, examples of the “rude” behavior, or even a glimmer of who I was interacting with when the concern arose.

    When I’ve asked for specific examples of behaviors to avoid, I’m simply told to “treat everyone in the building like you’d treat a client”… which is what I was already doing. Is this the kind of scenario in which going to the Big Boss may be more productive than continuing to talk to my immediate manager, even though I get the feeling my immediate manager is trying to minimize it b/c she doesn’t see the need for the conflict in the first place? I’ve been coached about “following the chain of command” before, which is *VERY* important to the Big Boss, so I hesitate to request a meeting with her directly, and yet, when my immediate supervisor is told to write me up about this issue and can’t provide the productive feedback I need, I’m not sure how else to proceed? :/ (If it helps, this work environment is almost entirely female, so the communication patterns and culture I’m used to from predominantly male-populated jobs is quite different to begin with. Perhaps it’s a work culture difference that I’m just not understanding?)

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