by Allen J. Sheinman | July 01, 2010

Few tasks are harder than needing to give an employee a squirm-inducing warning about such touchy topics as poor performance or negative attitudes. Herewith, some dos and don'ts adapted from Handling Difficult Conversations With Employees (PBP Executive Reports,, a common-sense guide for managers.

Be specific.
Some managers make the mistake of using general terms to express their expectations. Instead of saying, "I want you to be more aggressive and proactive," say, "I want you to call five former customers a week, find out why they left us and report back to me on what they said." Set clear action steps and goals.

Say "we."
The use of "you" -- as in, "You didn't finish the job on time" -- is an invitation to an argument. Instead: "We need to talk about why the job wasn't finished on time." No accusations, no blame. Using the word we involves you, the manager, in the solution. For example, "We have a problem" or "We need to change some things."

Don't make it personal.
Criticize the problem, not the person. Bad approach: "You're too argumentative." Better: "The continual arguments are hurting our productivity."