Sunday, August 15, 2010

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?


Bret Simmons said...

Excellent as always, Dan. The only thing I would add is a step 1a - check your motivation. If don't sincerely care about helping the employee, it will come across and affect everything else. Never go angry or loaded for bear. They need to know that you care about them and the organization. They also need to know you will be resolute because its your job, so I love your step 6. Thanks! Bret

Dan McCarthy said...

Bret -
That's a great point, thanks.
Don't rush into it - think it over, better yet, talk it over with your manager or a trusted peer. At least give it a night to sleep on it.

Linus Fernandes said...

Never use it to even scores, either work related or otherwise.

Bob Marshall said...

This is all so wrong.

In the Deming view of work, the basic premise underpinning this article does not hold (i.e. that employees are responsible for their performance).

Please stop promulgating this outmoded and discredited Taylorist nonsense.

Maybe you would like to brush up on your Deming?

- Bob

Klaus Hammer said...

Dan, thank youy for the write-up. Lot's of good points there.

Not sure I agree with Bob there though...

about 15 years ago (seems like ages now, really) I was underperforming big time. Reason - I was love sick. Just that. I just couldn't force myself to work properly, and thus my sales figures went down (never was a great sales guy anyway).

So after 3 months of maybe working 50% my boss called me into his office. And then we agreed on a performance improvement plan. The aim was, to get back to the old figures within 2 months.

That chat actually did wonders. believe it or not ;) It kind of woke me up, made me seeing my pathetic self as what I was and that I needed to get a grip on myself. ---> So yes, there are times when employees actually are responsible for their own underperformance...

cheers, Klaus

P.S.: Sidenote: lef the company then a year after the PIP since I figured Sales is nothing I can excel in really ;)

Tim said...

Bob - what would be the appropriate way to address this type of issue according to the Deming view of work?

Harris Silverman- Business Coach said...

Very useful advice. Even though it's a small one, I think the point made in item 2 about skipping the small talk and going to the point is important. Small talk is mostly a way of diverting attention from the manager's discomfort, and it can trivialize the conversation.

Also, an issue that can come up re point 5 is that saying something isn't necessarily the same as meaning it. Under pressure, an employee will say what he's being pressed to say. It doesn't mean he really accepts the situation.

Harris Silverman

Scot Herrick said...

One thing to add -- have the talk early when the performance problem happens rather than later. You don't have credibility if you bring up performance issues that happened two weeks ago (or on a performance review that you never discussed before the performance review...).

And in all deference to Deming, yes, employees are also responsible for their performance as well as management. Plus, they sometimes don't realize they have a performance problem; a great reason to have a discussion.

Anna Smith said...

(using my new favorite word from the blog:)

Sheesh! Bob, I'm glad you are not rating my performance.
I looked into Peter Scholte's Leader's Handbook (google reader - 'the case against performance appraisal') and saw some interesting stuff... I agree that performance reviews are not productive/effective. Keep a log, set goals, measure them, be direct, continuously improve processes/standards and point out the goods things employees do - that should work fairly well.
If someone fell asleep in 'my' meeting - that's his/her loss...

Dan McCarthy said...

Linus –
Right – as Bret said, check your motivation.

Bob –
I actually listened to Deming speak once. I fell asleep and must have missed that part. I blame it on the heavy food and warm room.

Klaus -
"Love sick"? "... my pathetic self". That's a great story, thanks.

Dan McCarthy said...

Tim -
Good question.

Harris -
Good points. Right, there is more to being committed than just saying it.

Scott -
Right, and if a manager waits too long, how important can it be?

Anna -
I should write a post about the top 10 things to do to someone when they fall asleep at a meeting.

anna said...

Oh, I would love such a post! #7 Make everyone else evacuate the building and leave a gas mask behind. :)

Wally Bock said...

Great post, Dan and one that offers help for a job that most supervisors hate. In every class I've taught for over twenty-five years, I ask supervisors to rank the most-hated part of the job. Talking to team members about behavior and performance almost always comes out number one. The only other item that ever hits the top spot is "working with my boss."

There are three reasons why it's hard. First, most of us were raised to "play nice" and not confront people about things like this. Second, the promotion processes that select new supervisors do not usually evaluate candidates on whether they are willing to confront others. And third, no one teaches supervisors how to do the confrontation job effectively. You've fixed the third part with this post.

My post on "Talking to Team Members about Performance" ( )adds some things to what you have here, as does my Working Supervisor's Support Kit ( ). I'd raise two of them here.

When you describe the issue to your team member avoid using adjectives. Your example did that well. Also, avoid language like "always" and "never." If you're describing a recurring issue, be specific about how often or merely say, "We've discussed this before."

I've found it best to pause and wait for a reply after the description of the issue and why it's important. That opens up a broad range of possible responses, including admitting that you're right, admitting but suggesting an excuse, and admitting but sharing a reason. In a case very similar to your example, the response alerted me to an issue my team member had in suddenly needing to care for a sick parent. She wasn't sleeping much and she hadn't told any of us about it because she "didn't want anyone to think I was looking for excuses not to pull my weight."

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Thanks for those additional ideas, as well as the resources (which are excellant btw).

Jen Turi said...

Dan, excellent post. There are many valuable comments here but the one trait a manager should possess is humility. There are a couple different examples in the comments of situations where there were extenuating circumstances and reasons for certain behaviors. It is a mistake to make assumptions about people without asking them. Everyone has a personal life and like it or not, this sometimes affects job performance.

It should be addressed immediately and like Klaus mentioned,the employee may be genuinely unaware that there is an issue. Trying to keep many balls in the air tends to affect your personal objectivity.

One other point that you allude to, keep the conversation on the future. There is no point in rehashing the past. State the problem and why it is a problem, then focus on a solution. Doing this effectively will make the conversation a positive experience. It is not a toddler being berated but a manager who is concerned, would like to know more, and assist in solving the issue. Thanks for the read.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Dan McCarthy said...

Jen -
Thanks - good points - and you're welcome!

Wally -
I'm honored! thanks.

Julie-Ann said...

Dan, you’ve outlined an excellent way to deal with employee concerns. Might I also recommend using a similar methodology to help improve employee attitude toward customer service? When everyone engages in creating a culture of customer service – everyone wins! I found this article to be especially beneficial for helping to create a more open and productive environment:

Dan McCarthy said...

Julie-Ann -
Thanks for the resource.

Ann McKenzie said...

This is one of the most unpleasant parts of management but vitally important for the success of the manager and employee. This concise roadmap works well. I am in support of problem performance meetings on a Friday afternoon. This allows both manager and employee time to process the conversation outside of work for a few days.

Dominic Rajesh said...

Nice article Dan! I just shared this with our leadership group at work!

Dan McCarthy said...

Dominic -
Thanks, I hope they find it helpful.

rmbod said...

I like the performance issues approach and i'm sure this could be used to assist in performance evaluation meetings. Helping relate behaviour to performance and outcome is really important.

Anonymous said...

How about
1) clear definition of the objective/work to be done, the requisite time frame, and what the deliverable/work product is to look like
2) The training & tools appropriate for the assignment (what tools are needed to build a shed or build an Oracle database)

Regarding the notion of "team", I will submit that unless everyone has copy of the playbook, there is no "team". I realize that professional football isn't like business but Sunday night you will know exactly which guys will be getting the Super Bowl ring and they might not have played a down in the entire game!