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Difficult Conversations: More Difficult Than Ever

HR professionals must now factor in the coronavirus pandemic's impact on physical and mental health, economic uncertainty, and the struggles employees face working from home.

When 2020 began, APQC, a benchmarking and best-practices research firm, was poised to have its best year ever. “Then March hit, and everything went crazy,” says Ashely White, executive director of human resources at the Houston-based nonprofit, recalling the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company’s 65 employees began working remotely, and their performance goals were reset to be “achievable and reasonable.” But “a couple of employees completely disengaged,” White says.

The company revamped its office space to allow for social distancing, and the two employees who were struggling with working at home were asked to return to the office. A performance improvement plan was created and explained to both employees, with updated expectations written out, discussed and mutually agreed upon. “People really can’t argue with something they signed up to do,” White says.

“We’ve done our part,” she adds. “They have a place to work, resources, counseling and guidance. I think one will [work out] and one won’t.” 

‘Always start out seeking “why.” Don’t assume you know the root cause.’ 
Sue Eaglebarger

White says she understands the challenges employees may face with the new remote-work environment. She works from home with her husband and brother-in-law, who also work for APQC, along with her five kids, who range in age from 11 to 23, two dogs and two cats.

“I’ve got a zoo of people and animals,” White says with a laugh. “I remind [our employees] I understand the challenges they’re facing.”

That understanding is especially helpful when difficult conversations arise.

Even in the best of times, addressing topics such as poor performance, inappropriate comments and excessive absenteeism can be challenging for HR professionals. But now organizations must factor in the pandemic’s effect on employees’ physical and mental health; the ongoing economic uncertainty, which may lead to layoffs; and the struggles many employees face working from home for an extended period, often surrounded by family members. 

With any difficult conversation, the key for the HR professional is to “always lead with empathy,” White says.

Prepare Yourself

The reason most HR professionals dread having a difficult conversation is because “there’s some sort of emotion attached to it,” says Joe Navarro, a retired FBI agent who is also a body language expert and author of What Every Body Is Saying (William Morrow, 2008).

Before launching into a difficult conversation, he advises, conduct careful research of the facts and document the issues. And when conveying your concerns to an employee, strive to sound neutral and not let your emotions creep into your voice. 

It’s also important to be mindful of your body language and what it implies. Tilting your head to one side conveys that you’re receptive to and interested in what the other person has to say, he explains, while pinching the corner of your mouth indicates dislike and disdain. Stat 1

HR professionals should strive to make employees comfortable enough that they open up and begin to reveal what is at issue, he adds. “Difficult conversations require a lot of orchestration.” 

If you get nervous when executing a difficult conversation and “blurt stuff out, you can really make people on the receiving end feel bad about themselves,” says Paul Falcone, chief human resources officer for the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif., and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees (HarperCollins, 2019). “You’re dealing with people at their most vulnerable.”

Be prepared to practice what you intend to say in advance, but don’t rehearse every word, advises Moses Balian, a human resources consultant at Justworks, a software company based in New York City. “You never want to come off as scripted and robotic.” 

If you’re meeting face to face, think about where and when you’ll hold the meeting, who will be in attendance, and how you’ll present what you want to say, says Lindsay Dagiantis, vice president of human resources at Envoy Global, an immigration services provider based in Chicago. “In the new world, where many companies are virtual, the premise is the same,” she notes. 

Keep an Open Mind

When it’s time to have a difficult conversation, HR professionals should keep in mind that they might not know the whole story, says Sue Eaglebarger, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at Lawson Products, a Chicago-based company that distributes supplies for maintenance and repairs. “Always start out seeking ‘why,’ ” she says. “Don’t assume you know the root cause.” You always learn something when you’re open to gathering information, she explains.

If an employee is chronically late, for example, Eaglebarger recommends coming to the discussion prepared with facts about his or her tardiness, but also seeking the employee’s side of the story. She recommends saying something like “I noticed you’ve been late three of the last five days. What obstacles are you facing?” By asking for the employee’s input, “you give them a voice,” she says, adding that it’s crucial to really listen to the answers.

An HR professional also should be sure to link the behavior the employee is exhibiting with the problems it creates, Eaglebarger says. So if an employee is repeatedly late for work, explain why that’s a problem and how it can impact the organization before delineating what you hope the desired outcome will be. “The last thing you want is to be ambiguous about what the concern is,” she says. 

In some cases, personal struggles may be contributing to an employee’s behavior. Navarro cites the example of a woman who was showing up late for work and having trouble performing effectively. “She was just kind of zoned out,” he says. Managers learned the employee had a sick child at home and had confided in only one co-worker about it.

In other cases, employees may not realize their behavior is problematic. So, for example, instead of just telling someone to stop making bullying or sexist comments, Falcone recommends saying, “It might not be your intention, but it’s how it comes across to others.” He encourages having “an adult conversation based on mutual respect.” The HR professional might also ask the individual for permission to initiate coaching.

During Falcone’s time as vice president of human resources at Nickelodeon, he received complaints about an artist who used too much profanity. When Falcone tried to discuss the issue directly, the artist became offended. Falcone tried to assure him, “We want you to be you,” but also explained that the HR department had to ensure that the work environment was friendly and inclusive. The artist was initially angry, but two days later he called Falcone to say he understood the concerns.

“You don’t want them to feel like they were called to the principal’s office,” Falcone says. “The right kind of dialogue can obviate the need for progressive discipline.”

Balian recommends discussing potential problems sooner rather than later. “Get ahead of it,” he says. “Have the conversation before the difficult one has to happen. It will be awkward but not difficult.”

If someone is intentionally behaving in a way that’s unacceptable, “be tactful but direct,” Balian adds. “Don’t cushion it. Don’t leave room for ambiguity.”

How to Build Rapport while Wearing a Mask

​Face-to-face communication in the age of COVID-19 is more challenging for the obvious reason that masks, a necessary component of fighting the pandemic, hide the parts of our faces that display critical expressions.

Of course, from a public health perspective, wearing masks is a must, and HR professionals can’t stop doing so just because they present certain challenges. So here are some tips for how to communicate effectively and build rapport while still doing your part to keep the workplace safe.

Avoid clear masks unless necessary. Clear masks may seem like a good solution, but some people find them unsettling and the masks also tend to fog up. 

Practice your “mask voice.” The quality of your voice makes a big difference in how people respond emotionally to what you say. Use the acronym PAVE to help remember the four key elements: pause, accentuate, volume and emotion.

Practice active listening. When your conversation partner is speaking, show interest by periodically nodding and making sounds of understanding like “Mm hmm.” 

Use gestures and body language. Try to make full use of gestures while speaking to convey meaning and emotion—a little more than usual wouldn’t hurt. A good rule of thumb would be to increase the level of your gesturing by about 10 percent.

Mirror your counterpart. Mirroring is a nonverbal behavior that involves imitating the body language of a person or group of people with whom you are interacting. A lot of mirroring happens naturally and unconsciously. As with gesturing, however, you don’t want to overdo it to the point where it becomes noticeable or unnatural. 

Keep the “Two T’s” aligned. The “Two T’s” stands for “toes and torso.” During interactions, your feet have a natural tendency to reveal what’s really going on in your mind. If you’re in a meeting but feeling hungry, for example, your toes might start pointing in the direction of the door. This can be subconsciously interpreted as a lack of interest, so keep your toes and torso aligned and facing the person or people with whom you’re interacting. 

Smile with your eyes. Research shows that smiles with eyes that look angry, fearful, sad or neutral are perceived as not happy and therefore not indicative of the friendliness we associate with happy smiles. When you’re wearing a mask, then, it’s even more important to “smile with your eyes” if you want to create positive feelings.

Know when to Zoom. Generally speaking, in-person communication is preferable to a videoconference. There may still be situations in which Zoom or other tools make more sense, however, such as if you’re part of a high-risk group or living with someone who is, or if slides and graphics play a big role in your presentation.  —Dustin York

Source: Harvard Business Review.

Working in a Remote World 

With many employees now working remotely, it can be even more difficult to determine the reasons behind performance issues. 

Someone may appear to be slacking off, Balian says, but HR professionals need to determine if the real issue is that the employee is struggling or distracted. “Give them more leeway than ever,” he advises. “Work and life have become so integrated.”

An employee may be coping with an illness in the family, a relative in a nursing home, a spouse’s job loss, mental health challenges because of the pandemic and economic uncertainty, or a host of other issues, Balian says. 

Because many employees are working remotely, he recommends that managers check in with direct reports every week and invite them to share their feelings and concerns; otherwise, employees may feel isolated or ignored. To help employees open up, managers and HR professionals should “be available and communicate vulnerability,” Balian says. “That’s how you establish trust and rapport.”

‘Get ahead of it. Have the conversation before the difficult one has to happen. It will be awkward but not difficult.’
Moses Balian

If an employee is no longer meeting performance expectations, HR professionals need to consider whether those expectations are fair, Dagiantis says, considering the pandemic has impacted people’s ability to get things done. 

Saying that someone’s performance needs to improve may not be realistic given his or her circumstances, she notes. An example is a mother who’s working at home and has three children who are in virtual school.

HR professionals should “consider what burdens your employees are handling and listen to their needs more so than in the past,” Dagiantis says.

White says she reminds her employees at APQC that, despite the pandemic, “we still have a business to run. The only way to survive as a company is for all of us to stay all in.”

Zoom Challenges

Dealing with problem behavior using Zoom and other virtual platforms can pose additional challenges.

People communicate through both words and body language. According to Navarro’s research, individuals often aren’t that skilled at reading body language even in person. Using a virtual platform only complicates matters.

Executives have admitted to him that using Zoom and other platforms has decreased their ability to read nonverbal cues by 20 percent to 30 percent. “Much of what we communicate is nonverbal,” Navarro explains. But in many cases, employees are using poor-quality computer cameras and bad lighting, so “the cues we normally look for aren’t there. That affects our ability to interpret others.”

White says she relies heavily on body language when dealing with employees. Because APQC employees worked from home on alternate days even before the pandemic struck, they were accustomed to using Zoom.

If she can see someone from the mid-chest up, White says, she “can get the majority of the body language.” Some nonverbal cues, such as tears and gritting teeth, are very apparent, while others may be more subtle.

It’s a two-way street. “I need employees to see my nonverbal cues and trust that I’m actively listening,” Envoy Global’s Dagiantis says. 


If it’s necessary to have a difficult conversation remotely, HR professionals need to schedule a time to talk that works for both themselves and the employee, Eaglebarger says. “Not every employee has a workspace in their home where they can sequester themselves to have a quiet, private meeting.”

Adds Dagiantis: “You don’t want a child to see a parent get laid off or furloughed.” 

Navarro cites the instance of a woman who was having challenges working remotely while her husband and children were also at home. Her manager called to discuss the situation, and the employee was unable to convey that it wasn’t the right time to talk because her abusive husband was sitting in the next room.

HR professionals also have to be prepared for the reactions difficult conversations might elicit. Employees working remotely may be “a little more unrestrained,” Balian says. “There’s no office they have to re-emerge into.” 

Corrective Action

When an employee needs to change his or her ways, HR should frame the corrective action as being to the employee’s benefit, Balian says, rather than as a way to mete out punishment. “This isn’t middle school,” he explains. “It’s all about helping the employee work more effectively.”

He recommends detailing actions the employee can take to improve his or her performance and emphasizing that the organization is investing in the employee’s development “People are usually receptive to it,” he notes. 

“You wouldn’t put someone on a performance improvement plan if you didn’t want to retain them,” Balian says, adding that successfully rehabilitating an employee saves the organization the expense of recruiting and hiring new talent. 

By discussing the desired outcome of the performance improvement plan with the employee, “you put power back in the employee’s hands,” Eaglebarger says. “It helps the conversation go more smoothly.” 

If an employee has to be terminated, much of his or her response will depend on the HR professional’s manner and tone of voice, according to Falcone. It helps if you can say, “I know you’ve tried. It’s not personal. We appreciate what you’ve done.” 

On the other hand, if an employee feels as though he or she has been treated unfairly or humiliated, it could open your organization up to legal action. “A lawsuit is a tool of workplace revenge,” Falcone cautions.

Regardless of the goal and outcome of the difficult conversation, Navarro says, HR professionals must remember there’s no one-size-fits-all discussion. “People are different,” he says, “so every conversation will be different.”  

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.

Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan for HR Magazine.