Addressing a difficult situation doesn't have to be uncomfortable.

Your Guide to Handling Difficult Employee Conversations

Maybe you’ve had other employees approach you and complain that a particular individual is always having long, loud personal conversations on the phone.  Maybe they are always ‘sick’ on Mondays and Fridays and near public holidays?  Perhaps they smell of booze when they come back from lunch or seem like they’re suffering a hangover a lot of the time.

Whatever your situation, the following formula works to address all those sticky issues where you expect resistance, in the most professional and constructive way possible.

The DESC Model

Describe the facts of the situation as objectively as possible.

Express why the situation is a problem (i.e. the impact on the workplace) – use “I” statements to limit putting the person on the defensive with generalisations. For example, “I have noticed you are frequently engaged in personal phone calls and I am concerned that this affects your productivity”, rather than ‘you are always on the phone and not working”.

Specify what outcome or behaviour you would prefer to see – how the situation or behaviour has to change.

Consequences – outline what the end effects will be if the behaviour or situation is changed, or not changed.

For example, an employee with a pattern of unplanned leave:

  • (describe) Carly, I want to talk to you about an observation I’ve made about your attendance.  Then I would like to hear your explanation.  I am concerned you have been consistently absent (on unplanned leave) on the third Monday of each month. 
  • (explain) This affects the team planning as the team leader is aware of this pattern and is unable to approve flex requests from other members of the team and they subsequently have less access long weekends etc, which in turn creates tension in the office.
  • (specify) I’d like you to let me know if there is a particular reason that you are absent on the same day each month?
  • (conclusion)  If the pattern continues, I will be requesting medical certificates for these absences to provide the appropriate level of assurance that I am managing attendance and leave in the team appropriately.


The value of the DESC model is that –

  • it de-personalises the issue,
  • forces you to prepare for the discussion, and
  • makes clear on what outcomes you require. 

While it still may be confronting for employees (and no doubt uncomfortable for you as their manager too), they at least don’t have to wonder where this is heading or think of the issue as simply others ‘not liking’ them. You’ve explained its relevance to the workplace and what you consider is needed to solve the issue.  

It may feel obvious to some managers that simply mentioning the issue is ‘enough said’ – but employees are all individuals and we wouldn’t all behave so differently if we all thought the same way.  

Furthermore, addressing an issue in a way that is less than clear may potentially be perceived – or portrayed – as bullying or harassment.   It goes without saying that having these crucial conversations in a timely way prevents workplace conflict and issues escalating into something which may indeed be harder to manage. So go on and have the conversation – it’s crucial!

Free Download: Termination Letter Template

Need to let an employee go? Use our letter of termination template to ensure you are using the correct format. 

termination letter template