How to Confront an Employee Performance Problem

This post was recently published on SmartBlog on Leadership:

In all of the
work I’ve done in management development over the last 20-plus years, if I had
to pick the one thing that managers at all levels either won’t do, can’t
do, should do or could do it better, it’s having the will and skill to sit down
with an employee and have the tough conversation about performance.

In the life cycle
of management development, we tend to view this as “supervision 101.” And it’s
true — learning how to handle a performance problem is one of the very first
things a new leader should learn how to do. The problem is, for whatever
reason, they just don’t. Instead, they often develop all kind of ways to work around
performance problems as they work their way up to the executive ranks.

They develop the
ability to think strategically, lead change, make a great presentation and
other executive skills, but it’s like they skipped class when this skill was
taught. Then, usually when it’s too late, they’ll call in HR or hire an
executive coach to do their dirty work for them, as handling a performance
problem would be a task beneath their pay grade.

Am I being too
harsh or cynical? Here’s why it ticks me off so much: In the worst-case
scenario, some poor employee ends up doing what they thought was good work for
their entire career in a company and ends up finally getting let go because no
one had the courage or ability to deal with it while there was still time to
fix it. It’s sad, and it should never happen, but it does.

So, because the
problem still exists (and it still gets me fired up), here’s an update from a
post I wrote about three years ago. It’s based on a methodology I learned when
I first started training new supervisors, and it’s still as effective now as it
was back then.

The roadmap:

1. Get your
ducks in a row (preparation):
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 stuff 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.

Finally, step
back and check your motivation. The objective of this discussion should be to
truly help the employee – not to punish them or let off steam just to
get it off your chest. Having the right frame of mind going into the discussion
will set the tone and make all the difference.

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
    “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. Not too harsh and judgmental, but
don’t sugarcoat it.

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

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. It’s also a coaching
opportunity for the employee to learn and develop.

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

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 the initial ideas are not working, you can come up with
additional ideas. You also let the employee know you’re not going to let it

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. In fact, at some point in our careers, we all
do. If you follow this process, you’ll get most of them back on track before it
gets out of hand.