How to Discuss an Employee Performance Problem

The thought occurred to me the other day that while I’ve written a lot about the importance of accountability and dealing with poor performers, I’ve never actually written a post on exactly how to have a performance discussion. I have, however, written about how not to deal with underperformers.

Knowing how to sit down with an employee and have an effective conversation about a performance problem is one of the hardest things for any manager to do, new or experienced, and should never be taken for granted.

It’s also something that’s often screwed up – managers are either too vague and soft or too blunt and harsh. Both won’t get the desired results – improved performance.

We also don’t get to practice it a lot – unlike coaching or listening – so we can’t rely on repetition to get good at it.

Here’s a basic roadmap to follow that works in just about any situation:

1. Get your ducks in a row (preparation):
Something’s happened that has brought the performance problem to your attention. It’s either some objective performance data (sales numbers) or some kind of behavioral issue (falling asleep in a meeting). Gather all the data you can – get input from other sources if you can. It’s like CSI work – you’re gathering evidence to be able to convince yourself first, then the employee.
Then, write an outline of what you want to say and how you want to say it. If it’s serious stuff, you’ll want to involve your friendly local HR person. No, really – involve them. This is when you’ll realize how valuable a good HR pro can be. They deal with this nonsense on a regular basis.
Schedule a meeting – allow an hour – in a private location (closed door office or conference room). There’s no good time to have this kind of conversation, but Friday afternoon might be about the best.

2. Explain the performance issue.
Forget the friendly small talk – just get to the point. In a calm and conversational manner, explain to the employee what the performance issue or behavior is and why it concerns you. There are a couple models for doing this:
– SBR (Situation, Behavior, and Result): “In our meeting this week, you fell asleep. I had to wake you up and embarrass you in front of your peers.”
– BFE (Behavior, Feeling, and Effect): “When you fell asleep in our meeting, I felt like you were not interested in what I had to say. That sets a poor example for the rest of the team.”
However you do it, you’re basically helping the employee understand what exactly you are concerned about and why it concerns you.

3. Ask for reasons and listen.
This is where you give the employee a chance to give their side of things. Don’t ask: “So – what the hell were you thinking?” Instead, try something like: “So help me understand how this could happen?”
The key here is to really listen – for facts and feelings. There may be some legitimate reason for the problem – there usually is, at least from the employee’s perspective. Understanding the real underlying causes will help you and the employee do the next step, which is….

4. Solve the problem.
That’s the whole point of the discussion, right? Eliminate the causes and make the problem go away. A lot of managers seem to lose sight of that.
This really should be a collaborative discussion. In fact, it’s best to ask for the employee’s ideas on solving the problem first. People support what they create. The employee’s idea may not be as good as yours, but they’ll be more likely to own it and have success implementing it. If you’re not confident the employee’s idea is going to work, you can always add your own as an additional idea. The key here is to make sure the employee is committed – which leads to the next step….

5. Ask for commitment and set a follow-up date.
Summarize the action plan, and ask for the employee’s commitment. They need to say it to own it. Then make sure to set and agree on a follow-up date to check in on progress. That way, if your original ideas are not working, you can come up with additional ideas. You also let the employee know you’re not going to let it slide.

6. Express your confidence (and possible consequences).
If this is just the first discussion, and not a serious infraction, then there’s no need to mention consequences. However, if not, then you’ll need to make sure you clearly describe what will happen if there is insufficient improvement in performance or if the behavior does not improve. Either way, end it on a positive note – by expressing your confidence that the solutions you’ve both come up with will work. I realize this is hard to do if you don’t sincerely mean it – if that’s the case, then don’t say it.

There you go. After the meeting, document the discussion, and keep it in your employee file. Then, make sure there’s follow-up.

A lot of good employees screw up now and then. If you follow this process, you’ll get most of them back on track before it gets out of hand.

How about it – did I miss anything? What works and does not work for you?