Having Tough Employee Performance Conversations

I have always found that if you handle a problem in a benevolent and transparent way, and involve other people so it is not just your opinion, people get to the other side of these conversations being more enthusiastic.

Quote attributed to David M. Kelley

One of the most challenging things about being a leader is having a hard conversation with an employee who is under delivering.  It is uncomfortable for both you and the employee.  Preparing in advance is mandatory.  These types of meetings should never be done “off the cuff”.

Your employee should not be hear about a need for improvement for the first time at this meeting.  You should have been providing coaching feedback along the way.  It is important these meeting are a conversation rather than a monologue.  Ensuring a conversation is easier said than done because you can expect the employee to be guardedly receptive.  The natural tendency will be to self defense either through closing off or deflecting.  In either case quality preparation is your solution.

I thought sharing the following checklist might look like help.  I wrote it as a post conversation evaluation checklist.  But, you can just as easily use it pre conversation to ensure you are prepared to address each element.  You need to be clear on what employee behavior needs to be addressed and how the goal you are setting is expected to address it.

Checklist

  • Was the purpose of the meeting clearly identified at the beginning of the meeting?
  • Was a goal set and did the employee clearly understand what good looks like in achieving the goal?
  • Did you get the employee’s agreement to the goal?
  • Did you tell the employee what skills might be leveraged or stretched to achieve the goal?
  • Was an action plan developed that documents what needs to be done, how it will be accomplished, by whom and when?
  • Did you give specific directions (e.g. required forms, required approvals, etc.)?
  • Did you provide or identify the resources and information required to successfully achieve the goal?
  • Did you set a definitive completion date?
  • Did you define the priority of this work with the balance of the employee’s work plan?
  • Did you describe what new knowledge or skill development you believe the employee will get from working to achieve the goal?
  • Did you discuss your role in helping the employee achieve the goal (including what decision authority you are or are not delegating)?
  • Did you establish a follow-up meeting/discussion schedule?
  • Did you check to ensure the employee understood?

Assume Success But Protect Against Failure

I think it is important you genuinely go into the exercise wanting to help your employee be successful.  To do otherwise is disingenuous.  But, you should also recognize failure is a possible outcome as well.

One of the best pieces of advice I got regarding employee performance was when I was a Brand Manager.  I had an Assistant Brand Manager who was doing good work, but not great work.  The ABM was not keeping up with the skill development of his peers and Management was questioning the ABM’s potential.  I was struggling with the idea of giving negative feedback to an employee that was doing a good job.  My Marketing Director pointed out if I didn’t aggressively work with the ABM to accelerate skill development, I would be deadening his career rather than allowing the ABM to reach full potential either with our company or another (if he failed to achieve).  It was the kind of feedback that got me to reframe my thinking and view the tough performance conversation as in the employee’s personal best interest.

Since failure is a possible outcome (for the ABM I mentioned above it actually was the outcome), it is important you go the extra mile to be clear in your communication and to document the discussions.  Priorities and expectations shift constantly in business.  But, in this case you need to lock in what good performance looks like.  We would create a specific work plan that documented who, what, when and how success was going to be measured on each project we agreed to.  The measures were quantitative rather than subjective (e.g. delivery of an outcome by a specific date, feedback scores from team members above a pre-determined level, budget amount not to be exceeded, etc.).  Subjectivity becomes an achilles heel if the employee fails to perform up to expectation and termination becomes necessary.  The more objective you can make the exercise the fairer it is for both you and the employee.  And, the higher the probability the employee will be successful.  One word of additional advice is to run the workplace and success measures by your manager before discussing with your employee.  You and your manager must be on the same page.  Otherwise, if the employee meets your expectations but fails to meet your managers you will be caught in a sticky situation.

Parting Thoughts

Hopefully you never have to have a tough performance conversation with an employee.  But, if you do, take the time to prepare well for it.  There is nothing more soul sucking than botching up providing negative feedback and then having to spend time with your company HR and potentially Legal counsel to straighten out the mess.  You feel like a failure and your employee ends up taking a career hit.

I am 100% confident the checklist is not comprehensive.  If you have personal experience (either on the giving or receiving end) with tough performance conversations, please add some advice.  The more we can learn from people who have been through the process, the better job we can all do when it is our turn.

Thanks in advance!

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