In an ideal world, workplace behavior would always be pleasant, polite and professional. In the real world, however, employees sometimes display behavioral issues that require your attention.

Whether it’s offensive language, poor hygiene or attendance problems, disruptive behavioral issues can wreak havoc on the workplace. Unaddressed, these issues negatively impact your team, disrupt the work environment and lower morale and productivity.

As uncomfortable as it might be to talk with employees about these topics, it’s easier if you keep a few basic principles in mind:

Fear is normal (have the talk anyway)

No one likes conflict or seeks it out intentionally. Even when it’s obvious to everyone in the workplace that there’s a problem, many managers avoid having “the talk” with employees long past the time such discussions are due. We usually hesitate to engage in these conversations because we’re afraid they won’t go well and that employees will become upset.

A good way to get out of the fear trap is to focus on facts, behavior and impact—NOT judgements and personalities. Approach the conversation by considering that employees don’t always understand how their behaviors affect others around them or the environment overall. They may appreciate your concern.


As a leader, you have an obligation to help employees do well and remove obstacles to their success. You can’t do that by having an unprepared discussion about their performance or behavior. Focus on expectations and explain where your employees are off target. State the facts and provide examples of what the desired behavior or performance looks like.

If the behavior in question violates company policy, make sure you’re clear on what the policy says and any related procedures. Your employee should leave thinking they can do better. You want them to feel accountable for meeting their goals and knowing how to do it.


Managers often get approached “confidentially” about offensive workplace behavior. While you need to use discretion and not unduly embarrass anyone, you can’t guarantee someone will remain anonymous after complaining. Depending on what they disclose, you may have an obligation to act or report the situation to others.

Likewise, take care not to inappropriately share information with anyone who doesn’t need to know. Remember, there’s usually more than two sides to the story: The complaint, the employee who was complained about and the truth.


Admit it: There are some members of your team you like more than others. But it’s imperative that you hold all employees to the same performance expectations. To avoid seeming like you’re picking on a certain individual or any particular group, always focus on the facts. Consider running it past a third party, like HR or your own supervisor.

Remain calm

Make a strong effort to keep your own feelings in check. Discussions about challenging topics can easily become emotionally charged. As you talk, watch your employee’s body language and tone of voice as well as your own. If things are escalating, stay calm and try to find common ground. If you feel that the employee isn’t receiving what you’re saying, or if things become too emotional, consider taking a break and trying again another time.

Difficult conversations are just that—difficult. But effective communication is a two-way street. By being mindful and actively employing the practices I’ve outlined, you’ll be much closer to having constructive conversations that tackle those difficult workplace topics.