top of page



Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR  I have been working in Human Resources for 23 years. Since 2011, I have been certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).  I have a BA in English and a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law from Tulane Law School. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Luke and our cat, Poirot. I write about HR, non-profits, the art of managing people and Neurodiversity in the workplace. I'm available for employment, contract work, consulting, coaching and training virtually and in the Portland, OR area. Please email me at for more information. 

  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Arnott, SPHR

Speak Plainly: Addressing Problematic Behavior With Leaders

One of the challenges that often rests on the shoulders of HR professionals is having difficult conversations with executives and leaders. Although the tendency is to hide plain language in fluff, to ease the feedback gently upon a leader that you have to interact with on a regular basis, HR professionals must step up and speak plainly to interrupt problematic and harmful behavior as soon as they are aware of it. This is no easy task and can be so overwhelming that the urge to ignore, pass the buck to another leader, or even just send an email, is often all consuming.

Even though the urge is there, my job as an HR professional is to embrace difficult conversations and do what I can to promote a healthy, inclusive environment for all. Sometimes that means giving really difficult feedback, face to face with the top leaders in an organization.

I'm not going to get into the investigation piece, as that's a separate process. For this post, I'm addressing the feedback conversation with an executive in a situation that may not clearly be harassment or discrimination. Maybe it's something you've observed as problematic or that you've heard other people talking about. As an HR leader, you can take steps to ensure that the leader has the tools to stop the problematic behavior before it becomes pervasive and that they understand the potential risks if their behavior continues.

Here are eleven steps to having a successful difficult conversation with a leader:

1. Before there's a problem, build relationships of trust. Right out of the gate, when you get a new job as an HR leader in an organization, start building relationships of trust with executives, managers and leaders. Ask what you can do to help them. Speak up in meetings with leadership and get involved in important initiatives. Demonstrate your business and people savvy. Be curious about how departments are run and how the business functions. Leaders are going to take you seriously if they know that you know the business and how things operate.

2. When a leader behavior issue arises, do NOT send an email. I've often heard of behavior issues in leadership being addressed via email - sending the details of the complaint, who made it, what they said and a simple instruction to make sure that employees are treated with respect. With no context or further discussion, the leader can take this email and freely retaliate against the employee that complained. Skip the email. Schedule a meeting.

3. Meet face to face, express appreciation and acknowledge that the conversation may be difficult. Thank them and acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. "Thanks for meeting with me. I appreciate you making the time. I had a difficult issue come up yesterday that pertains to you, and I wanted to make sure that I talked to you face to face, so that we can decide the best way to move forward." If you've already built a relationship of trust with this person, you are going to already know their management style and know the best way to adjust your communication to be most effective specifically with this person. Be intentional about how you communicate in this meeting.

4. State the issue clearly and specifically, and ask questions: State the specific issue. No fluff. Be plain and clear. Focus on the facts. Do not make any assumptions. Seek to understand. Don't be accusatory. "I've heard people saying that your interactions with Kimberly are being perceived as bullying, or picking on her. Do you know why others might be perceiving your interactions that way?"

I often also ask questions like "How do you feel about Kimberly being on your team? Is she a good worker?" Or "tell me about your working relationship with Kimberly." By asking questions like this, you can get to the real issues that are creating the problems. Maybe Kimberly is a good worker, but the executive doesn't like her for some other reason - maybe they knew each other outside of work, maybe Kimberly has an annoying habit. This is information you want, because then you can acknowledge the baseline issue, point out that this non-work related issue is affecting the leader's interactions and refocus the leader on work-related performance. Be clear about how the issue is affecting the work and the team.

If appropriate, you can empathize with the challenges of managing others as it pertains to this issue.

5. Listen and make suggestions. Don't interrupt. Listen to them talk. When appropriate, make suggestions about handling issues in a better way. Express empathy when appropriate.

6. Ensure understanding of the potential risks. Your job, as an HR leader, is to avert risks in people strategy and operations as much as possible. Explain that to the leader. Explain specifically how this issue may become a risk, or is already a risk, and that you wanted to bring it to their attention for that reason. It might go something like this: "So the main reasons I wanted to bring this up to you are because it potentially could create some risk for the company and it may also negatively affect your team morale and work ethic. One of the ways this could become a risk is that if Kimberly continues to feel, or others continue to notice that you treat Kimberly differently from others, it could be come an issue of harassment or discrimination. Does that make sense?" I will often follow it up with statements of support, such as: "I know sometimes managing others can be challenging. How can I support you in this situation?"

7. Restate policy on retaliation. It's important that retaliation is addressed because it's common that leaders don't understand what it looks like. I will often provide examples of retaliation that they may not be aware of, such as: treating the employee differently; not approving time to leave early, when it is approved for everyone else; assigning clean up work to the complaining employee when that's not something they normally do; or penalizing them for being late, when you don't penalize anyone else.

Many times leaders will feel personally offended by the complaint. This makes it difficult for them to be neutral in the face of an accusation. Express empathy that this can be difficult. Ask the leader if they are able to do their job and treat all of their employees respectfully, without retaliation. Express confidence in their ability to do so.

8. Ask what you can do to help and close the meeting. Ask how you can support the leader in the situation, if you haven't already. Confirm any details for going forward. Thank them for meeting with you, and express confidence in their ability to move past the issue.

9. Follow up with an email and document the conversation for your records. After the meeting, send a short email, thanking the leader for meeting with you regarding the specific issue, and reiterating their commitment to correcting the issue. Restate your offer to help. It might look something like this: "Thanks again for meeting with me today about the issue regarding how the interactions with Kimberly are being perceived. I appreciate your willingness to reflect and adjust your interactions going forward. If I can help with anything, or be a sounding board for you at any time, please don't hesitate to give me a call or send me an email. I'm happy to help! I know these things can be challenging."

This is not disciplinary action, so this would not go in the leader's employee file. But it's great to keep a summary of the situation, important details and how you addressed the issues in a separate document, including the date, who was in the meeting, in case a similar issue comes up. That way, you can see what the patterns are.

10. Follow up in a week or so to check in. Ask the leader how they are doing and if anything has come up that you can help with. If there were agreed upon actions that the leader was going to take, check in on those actions. This can be a phone call, a face-to-face meeting, or an email.

11. Follow up again in a month. Check in with the leader to see how things are going and if anything has come up that you can help with. If positive things have happened that you've gotten feedback about the situation, make sure you share that feedback. If additional issues have come up, then have another conversation.

Difficult conversations are hard! But when you can plan and approach it as a helpful colleague, it can serve as a catalyst in building stronger relationships of trust and building your credibility in the organization, not to mention preventing pervasive and problematic harassment issues.


bottom of page