Effective communication is critical to help employers engage, develop and retain employees. But many employers — particularly small businesses — may not know which conversations are the most important, how best to start those conversations and how to ensure they’re productive. As benefit advisers increasingly counsel clients on a broad range of workforce management topics, here are eight key conversations advisers should recommend their clients have with every employee:

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1) This is who we are. Ensuring employees understand a company’s values is a key step in attracting and retaining the right people to help a business succeed. These conversations should begin during the hiring process. Advisers should recommend that clients take the time to really think about and define their business values so they can clearly communicate them to potential recruits. For example, if innovation is important, employers must explain how the company fosters creativity (e.g., through brainstorming sessions or cross-functional team initiatives).

2) This is how you fit in. Businesses should establish and communicate a clear set of goals for every person within the company. These goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. Employers should tie each individual’s goals to company-wide goals and involve employees in the goal-setting process.

3) We recognize your efforts. When employees are recognized for positive performance, they’re more likely to be motivated to continue the good work. Fifty-eight percent of small companies planned to thank existing employees during this past year, according to ADP research. While bonuses and cash rewards are great, a timely conversation or note praising hard work is always welcome.

4) What are your career goals? Two-way conversations are vital to engaging employees long-term. If small businesses only discuss daily activities with their staff, employees may not feel connected to their work. Proactively discussing an employee's career interests and professional strengths can help ensure they feel valued. Even if there aren't a lot of opportunities to move upward in the company, these conversations can help employees identify areas for skill development that will serve them well in the future.

5) Let's help you get there. In recent years, there’s been a shift toward including informal, frequent check-ins to the overall performance review process. These casual conversations can sometimes reveal more about how things are going for an individual employee than formal performance discussions. They also can help supervisors track the status of projects, provide timely feedback and build stronger working relationships with employees.

6) How can we help you improve? This can be one of the toughest conversations any employer has with employees, because no one wants to deliver bad news. However, if employers approach the conversation from a coaching perspective and clearly state the next steps an employee must take, they can create a more productive discussion. Employers also should document the meeting and follow up with the employee to ensure they remain on track.

7) It's time for your performance review. While some companies may have shifted away from annual performance reviews, they remain an important tool for many employers. These conversations provide an opportunity to evaluate an employee's performance against previously set goals and set new goals for the coming year. Supervisors should, however, provide performance feedback to employees throughout the year via informal check-ins.

8) Can you give us feedback? Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing feedback is a great way to motivate and engage them. Advisers also should recommend clients conduct exit interviews with departing employees if they don’t do so already. Exit interviews can help identify a company's strengths and weaknesses and transfer knowledge to a successor or replacement.

These eight conversations are essential to a strong employer/employee relationship. Benefit advisers can help ensure their clients foster a high-performance culture by taking a proactive approach to these employee conversations.

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