Leadership Spotlight

Having Hard Conversations

Having Hard Conversations

As a new supervisor in the FBI’s Los Angeles office, I—along with several other managers—met with the special agent in charge (SAC) for the first time to get to know him and receive some of his leadership philosophy. Because of his reputation as a no-nonsense executive, I expected him to share the usual words of encouragement, as well as a few tips on management. However, the SAC had a completely different message; he began by asking us if we ever fired an employee.

Personal Experience

I always expected to do the right things as a supervisor and to avoid such a situation to begin with. As time went by and I held several other management positions, I began to see the conundrum supervisors faced while dealing with problem employees and how such issues affected the organization. I also understood why the SAC used his valuable time to talk to us about the subject. Many years later, I appreciate what he tried to get through to us.

After serving in various levels of management, I consider myself knowledgeable on how to lead and manage subordinates, which includes disciplining them for unwanted behavior or violations of policy. As I reflect back over my career, I can remember punishing an employee only a few times. Have I been lucky, with great employees who met expectations and never misbehaved, or did I let things slide to avoid confrontation?

I heard stories from peers and subordinates about personnel—supervisors or line workers—who were difficult to manage and unreceptive to any type of management intervention. Initially, I wondered if those employees were bad hires or if they simply resulted from a lack of leadership sometime in their careers. I consider the latter true.

Law enforcement professionals want their supervisor to treat them with respect and dignity. To earn subordinates’ trust and confidence, I found it important to keep them accountable for their work product and behavior. Fortunately, the FBI allows many opportunities—formally and informally—for managers and their employees to meet and discuss job performance or other related issues. These meetings do not have to be confrontational because they give supervisors the opportunity to recognize an employee’s successes while identifying areas for improvement. Also, personnel can clarify expectations and measures for success with their manager.

Meeting consistently creates ongoing dialogue between subordinates and supervisors concerning work performance and other pertinent concerns, and it allows for the creation of a formal record. If managers remain honest and fair and employees receptive, such meetings also help keep unwanted behavior in check and make personnel more cognizant of their workplace productivity and behavior.

But, what happens when a supervisor finds the disaffected employee unreceptive to any type of management intervention or strategy? These situations separate leaders from managers. Leaders deal with the problem employee proactively, while managers work around the individual to fulfill the mission. One of the first things the leader can do with the employee is to have that hard conversation.

Productive Interventions

Leaders can meet with problem employees to gain an understanding of their state of mind. In many instances, such personnel may think they are satisfying standards. Or, perhaps they will blame their poor performance on lack of training. Leaders must discern if employees truly lack the skills, simply are in the wrong job, or never have had proper leadership.

In any case, these meetings are hard and require sensitivity because in the end, the employee should recognize the need to perform better. The conversation should not be a game of “gotcha” or focus on past failures, but stress areas that need attention. If necessary, an unbiased peer supervisor can serve as a witness in case the meeting strays into hostile territory.

As with all important matters, the leader should maintain an accurate account of the conversation. This record, along with any other notes from meetings with the problem employee, details the efforts of the leader to bring the individual up to standard. Documenting conversations and keeping journals may prove difficult for leaders because their busy schedules often prevent them from stepping back and reflecting on their decisions and actions. But, they must remember the importance of maintaining timely, accurate notes because this often serves as the only evidence human resource personnel may have in deciding to retain or dismiss a bad employee.

Like any intervention aimed at modifying behavior, a hard conversation with the problem employee should occur as soon as the leader notices a difference in productivity or behavior. True leaders show genuine concern for their subordinates, and observing such changes shows that they are paying attention. By engaging in a conversation with the employee, the leader can determine whether additional coaching and mentoring can help the problem or if the employee has serious issues that require additional resources to address.


Confronting anyone about their shortcomings always proves difficult. However, law enforcement leaders are responsible to their personnel and agency to ensure everyone contributes to the mission. Knowing the people you lead, having hard conversations with them as necessary to gain an understanding of their issues and circumstances, and setting them on the path toward improvement only benefit the organization. At the least, employees are identified and documented as a wrong fit for the agency. Effective leaders realize they must overcome whatever fear or trepidation they have in offending their fellow employees for the good of the mission and the organization.

Supervisory Special Agent Demetrio Avelino of the Executive Programs Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at davelino@fbi.gov.