The Most Difficult Employee Conversation

The most difficult performance conversation you can have is with an under-performer.

You may not be completely comfortable casting judgment, or may be worried about the reaction you will get. You may even be tempted to just ignore the problem and hope your employee will turn around on their own. Not having the conversation can have some serious consequences; by doing so, you signal to others that it’s okay not to give your best effort. Under-performing managers cause stars to leave, and they generally replace them with under-performers. In this way, one problem becomes many.

Here are a few tips to help you have a conversation with an under-performer:

  1. Keep the conversation focused on the here and now rather than future options, new tasks, or additional responsibilities.
  2. During the conversation, clearly explain your concerns and give examples. Discuss the actionable steps required for your employee to be successful in their role in the next three to six months.
  3. Make sure your expectations are reasonable given the employees’ level, experience, and training.
  4. Give a single, clear message. Describe and report, don’t evaluate and judge.
    Problems are either attendance, performance, or behavior related. If it’s performance related, it’s either in the knowledge or execution where you will see the hang up. If it’s knowledge, then proper development training will provide the solution. If it’s execution, then remove obstacles that hinder performance, provide regular feedback, and arrange appropriate consequences so that performing well makes a difference.
  5. I do not recommend the “Sandwich” (Start with some good news, deliver the bad news, then finish with a little good news). It’s confusing and your employee is very likely to miss the point completely.
  6. Make sure the description of the problem is unarguable. “Someone rang to say your driving was erratic”, for example, is the problem to be addressed. Don’t characterize the problem by saying “the problem is that your driving too erratic.” The problem is such that it concerned someone enough to call in and complain, that is the fact.
  7. Describe the effect of these behaviours on the organization, and the individual’s colleagues or team. Ask for an explanation and listen to the answer. Don’t interrupt and don’t argue, but make sure you get an adequate answer.
  8. Ask what they will do differently in the future. Listen to the answer, don’t interrupt, don’t argue and make sure you get an adequate answer. Paraphrase, and say it back to them so you are both clear.
  9. Make sure you get agreement to change. Then if you need to talk about it again, the next conversation will be about whether they honoured their commitment or not. Offer some support, but make sure it’s clear that they alone are responsible for solving the problem.
  10. Outline the consequences of continuing with existing behavior. Set the review date.

Good Luck!