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When it comes to employee discipline, a lot of employers and managers feel uncomfortable in having what they deem to be an ‘awkward’ conversation. So much so in fact that they can tend to put it off, enabling the issue to fester and worsen over time. This can be down to any number of reasons. Perhaps the manager is unsure of how to proceed and what level of discipline is required. Maybe they are afraid of stirring the pot and prefer to look in the other direction. Whatever the reason, this kind of head burying can have far reaching negative consequences for your organisation. Whether an employee’s behaviour needs to be checked or they are experiencing performance issues, the sooner you deal with the problem the better for all concerned.

So, what are some general guidelines you can follow to help get you in the right frame of mind for those awkward conversations?

Prepare as much as possible

In general, how has this employee responded to feedback in the past? Is there something that you know is a trigger and could cause them to have an emotional response? Perhaps they are under a lot of stress, either at work or in their personal life? While you cannot fully know everything that is going on with your employees, it helps to be armed with some kind of background knowledge so that you have the best chances of addressing the situation in a way that that particular employee will gain from.

Be direct and objective

Although it can sometimes be difficult to remain even-tempered and objective – especially when faced with an employee who is indifferent or even defiant – professionalism calls for remaining emotionless and not getting personal. Conversations such as these tend to be highly sensitive – no one likes to be told they are not meeting expectations after all. It is therefore important that you remain focused on the reason for having the conversation, how you envision the employee improving their behaviour, conduct or performance, and that you do not become adversarial. While relationship counsellors may encourage people to talk about their feelings, when it comes to the relationship between manager and employee, this needs to be avoided. A conversation that gets personal will only undermine your professionalism.

Watch your language

While we don’t expect you to be in the habit of launching a foul-mouthed tirade against your employees, focusing on using the right kind of language when in a disciplinary situation can turn a fraught conversation into a productive one. It is wise to avoid using words that suggest you are overly focused on blame. While you need to be direct for the sake of clarity, you can still frame your conversation in a way that the employee feels motivated to do better, rather than scared of being fired. You will want the employee to feel supported rather than targeted; choosing to use “we” rather than “you” can be a good way to do this.

Making the conscious decision beforehand to use positive language rather than negative can also help to keep things amicable and productive. If your employee is failing to meet an expectation, then you should be giving them positive steps to take to help them reach their goals, rather than telling them not to do something. By focusing on action rather than inaction, your feedback becomes more easily implemented. Asking your employee to offer suggestions of how they can improve on their performance is one way of confirming that they have fully understood and helps to involve them in the improvement process.

What happens if the feedback just doesn’t seem to be getting through?

Unfortunately, our well-chosen words can sometimes fall on unhearing ears. For whatever reason – miscommunication on our part, lack of motivation on theirs, or some other reason entirely – your employee may not always follow your advice. So, what’s the next step?

If you have spoken informally with your employee once and they do not seem to be making any improvements, then it might be worth having a chat with them again to ensure they’ve understood and find out what’s been going on. If you find their behaviour or performance had improved for a short while after you spoke with them, but they are now reverting back to their old ways, remember that old habits can be hard to kick. Speak with them again and highlight how pleased you were with the improvements they had made but that you noticed standards have been dropping again – it’s always possible that your employee isn’t even aware they have been letting things slide.


If you have had to speak with your employee again, a third time, then this is clearly a recurring problem and there needs to be a more structured process put in place. Developing a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is one way that you can identify why they are failing to reach certain expectations but remember – PIP’s are goal oriented and might not work for specific behavioural issues. Rather, they should be used in cases where you believe your employee can come back to standard by implementing steps to help them reach well-defined goals. If, however, such a plan still fails to reach the desired outcome, then it may be time to look at implementing a formal disciplinary process.


We hope that the above tips will help you prepare for your next ‘awkward conversation’. However, when it comes to more formal conversations, it can help to seek independent advice from a qualified third party. To discuss this area in more detail, you can call us at Insight HR on 056-7701060.

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