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7 Easy Tips for Hard Conversations About an Employee’s Performance

One of a manager’s more unpleasant tasks is speaking with an employee when his or her job performance may not be up to par. It’s never an easy conversation.

However, it can be easier. Use these seven steps as your guide.

1. Be graceful.

Four of the most dreaded words in the English language: “We need to talk.”

We’ve all been on that receiving end; the news that follows is never good. Part of that is because the sentence immediately and directly places us in a negative mindset, before the actual message is delivered, so we’re primed to be on the defense. And who wants that?

How you say something is as important as what you say. Your tone sets the mood for the entire conversation, so determine the one you will take. You can do that by putting yourself in the employee’s shoes; if the roles were reversed, how would you like to hear the criticism be phrased?

For starters, you’d want it to be constructive. That means the following are out:

  • “Your attitude is terrible.”
  • “You’re really struggling.”
  • “I feel like you’re never going to get this.”

And that leads us directly to the next point …

2. Don’t make it personal.

The feedback should never target the person – just the person’s action that needs correcting. Rather than framing the undesirable behavior as a reflection of someone’s character, tie it to the negative impact it has on the team, department and/or company, as well as on shared goals.

Be sure to heed the advice of Mary Poppins by delivering a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, by always complimenting what the employee does right before mentioning what needs to be righted. As you do, however …

3. Be specific.

… because “You’re great to have on the team, but please get your act together” doesn’t do anyone good.

For example, let’s say John excels at answering emails right away, but his messages often contain glaring typos – an oversight that doesn’t exactly place the company in the best light when the recipients are clients.

You could approach the conversation this way: “John, I really appreciate your urgency in responding to emails. I never have to worry about whether you’ll answer them in a timely manner, partly because you already have by the time it even crosses my mind! Seriously, your follow-through is outstanding – the quickest among the whole team. I’d like you to take a tad more time, though, to read them before you send them, just to make sure you’ve caught any typos. I know our brains work faster than our fingers can type, but I also know you understand that we all want to look as buttoned-up as possible with our clients.”

By receiving the bad wrapped in the good, John is less likely to feel beaten down or get defensive. Instead, he feels valued and like he plays an important role, and wants things to stay that way. From here on out, his emails are all but guaranteed to have fewwer tpyos – er, fewer typos.

4. Speak in person.

While we’re on the subject of email, let’s get off of it: Don’t use it to discuss performance.

Whenever possible, these conversations should occur in person because doing so demonstrates care. (Your words should reflect that, too: “I want to share something with you because I care about you and want you to succeed here.”) It also makes your intent clear, which otherwise can be misinterpreted.

Email is problematic because tonally, we tend to read messages at one level below what the writer meant. Thus, a positive can be perceived as neutral; a neutral email, negative.

Over the phone presents its own unique problem, in that an employee cannot read your body language. If physical location prevents a face-to-face talk, the next best thing is to connect through a videoconferencing tool, such as Skype or FaceTime.

5. Document it.

In case performance fails to improve after giving an employee an opportunity to correct it, it’s important to have discussion of that opportunity documented.

At the start of any such discussion, let the employee know you will follow up the talk with a brief summary via email – “for reference,” so you do not appear confrontational. This sets a standard, as well as expectations. It’s all about ensuring same-page placement.

Plus, it’s downright helpful. Receiving feedback from a supervisor is intimidating, so an employee’s mindset can be scrambled at the time, keeping them from fully processing the criticism. A post-meeting email provides a record for both parties.

Consider asking the employee to email what he or she understands to be the takeaway of your meeting. That way, you not only get documentation, but insight into your worker’s POV.

6. Don’t wait.

If something needs fixing, there’s a reason, and one likely not worth further delay. Don’t wait for a scheduled one-on-one; address the issue immediately.

That said, if the feedback is particularly difficult, waiting a few hours toward the end of the workday is best. If you believe the employee might burst into tears, have the discussion when there may not be as many co-workers around to minimize embarrassment when he or she leaves the room.

Again, that said, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s knowing your people, and you know them best.

7. It starts with you.

Speaking of you, having the hard conversations begins there.

Here’s why: If you are a leader who encourages feedback from the people you supervise, they in turn will be more receptive to receiving it. Rather than “my way or the highway,” feedback should be a two-way street.

Therefore, make it clear to them that not only are you open to hearing their ideas, but you welcome it. Ask your employees, “How can I improve in your role?” and, more important, “What can I do to make your job easier?”

Odds are, they’ll tell you. Or appreciate being asked.