Difficult Employees on Campus: What to Do When A Difficult Conversation Didn’t Work

Difficult Conversations

Every campus has their fair share of difficult employees and managers know that there are certain conversations with these employees that can be challenging – confronting inappropriate behavior, personal hygiene, or even poor job performance. In preparation for this, you have likely read the best methods to handle a difficult conversation, prepared for it, rehearsed and executed it. But what happens when the troublesome behavior continues after you had the necessary conversation? It can be a deflating feeling for managers. As much as you dreaded the conversation, actually having it brought a sense of relief…until you realized that it failed to have the effect you desired. Then all that dread of the confrontation comes rushing back combined with a new-found uncertainty as to how to get the job done this time. In preparing for “Difficult Conversations: Round 2,” here are some of the important issues to remember.

Timing: When is the Best Time to Regroup and Have the Next Meeting?

You had the first meeting with the problem employee. You felt as though you made yourself clear. The employee responded in a positive manner and at the conclusion of the meeting, you felt as though you were both on the same page.

And then you witness the same employee committing the same violations.

How long should you wait to intervene? Your initial instinct might be to “give it some time” as the employee might just be adjusting to a new behavioral routine. However, you need to ignore that impulse – the best time to intervene is right away. Delaying it could allow the employee to fall even further into old routines and make it more difficult to emphasize the importance of the problem behavior. Moreover, the longer you wait, the more likely the problem employee’s behavior will have negative consequences for other employees and/or the company. Don’t hesitate; act.

Get Right Into It

It’s only natural to start off meetings with some small talk. In most business situations, it’s not only okay to do, it is expected. However, for a difficult conversation, especially one you’re having a second time, it is important to get right to the primary issue. Your employee may try to diffuse the situation with small talk, but you can easily avoid this ploy by saying “We can talk about that later, but right now we need address this.” Not allowing for small talk will reinforce that this is a serious situation and commands attention.

Don’t Fall for the Common Traps

Your employee might begin to feel threatened and respond accordingly. Some tactics they might try to use are anger, crying, sarcasm, silence and defensiveness. It is important to have control over your own emotions in these situations. Don’t get pulled into an emotional conflict – even if the employee is criticizing  your work or even making personal insults. Remember to be firm in your position but willing to listen and keep emotion out of it. If the employee uses passive aggressive language, push past it to get to the heart of the situation by saying “We need to discuss how the impact of [issue] affects the company.” If the employee goes silent, say “I’m not sure how to interpret your silence.” Whatever the emotional state of the employee is, you must remain calm, cool and collected.

Ensure Your Meaning Is Understood

Similar to avoiding small talk, you’ll want to ensure that the employee is aware that this is a serious meeting. Chances are you’ve had meetings with employee before, so you want to convey that this meeting isn’t one of those “little talks.” Tone, demeanor and body language are all important in conveying the importance of the issue you’re discussing. Emphasize this is an “official” meeting. If your company has a policy in place for documenting disciplinary meetings, be sure to include that documentation. This will be helpful at the end of the meeting because you can both sign off that the meeting was held, what was discussed and what the expected outcomes are. This is not only helpful for conveying the seriousness of the situation, but will also be a valuable reference in any future meeting if the problem persists. In particular, it creates a paper trail of documentation should the situation escalate to termination.

The Most Difficult Conversation: When It’s Time to Terminate

The most difficult conversation any manager can have is the one that ends in termination of the employee. It can be emotional, challenging and make you feel as though you failed as a manager. It is always important to leave emotion out of it. Chances are this will be at least the third conversation with the employee. It will be different than any of those prior conversations though, because there should be less of a dialogue. You’ll want to ‘script’ the conversation even more so than any of the others. If you have documentation from previous meetings, include that as part of the script. You’ll want to plan each segment of the conversation ahead of time, allowing a certain amount of time for each part. Maintain an even, serious tone throughout and have a clear idea of how you’re going to end it.

All managers need to have difficult conversations with employees from time to time. But, with planning and practice you can ease the level of difficulty. The goal of every manager should be to thwart the negative behavior and coach your employee into being able to perform at the level expected. When this is not possible though, you need to take steps to discipline the employee, which may result in termination as they are not the right fit for your campus. We hope you enjoyed these tips.

We here at Higher Ed Hero Hope you found these tips useful. For other strategies on dealing with difficult employees on campus, please join us for this upcoming, live webinar:

Employees on Campus: Taming Know-it-Alls, Whiners and Hostile Workers

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Kevin Erdman



– Higher Ed Hero

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