How to discuss poor performance with an employee

Managing an underperforming employee is tough. Here’s advice from 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team on how to address poor performance.

It’s time to have “the talk”: The one where you have to figure out how to discuss poor performance with an employee.

This not-so-fun conversation you likely saw coming. After missed deadlines and low quality of work, you may have tried to have it, inquiring about their underperformance, one-off. Perhaps this employee even admitted to you that they had some personal problems affecting their work performance.

But you didn’t address their poor performance, head-on. Now, you need to… Or else they might be sticking around for much longer.

A manager who is a member of The Watercooler – our online community of 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team – expressed how he was facing this exact conundrum. An employee wasn’t performing well, and had divulged he was having some family issues.

This manager wondered: How should he approach this conversation in his next one-on-one meeting? How do you address poor performance with an employee, particularly when it seems they might have external issues influencing them?

Here’s how some of the 1,000+ managers in The Watercooler recommended approaching “the talk” about underperformance with an employee…

Don’t tell a bad performer they’re “a bad performer.”

You’re assigning them a highly loaded label, and this can cause the person to be defensive. Strong castigation doesn’t give any room for a productive conversation to discern the root cause of the bad performance. Rather, describe what behaviors you’ve noticed and the gap in performance, as objectively as possible. Do this without personally tying that person’s identity into their work. Ask, “This is what I noticed. Would you agree, or did you see things differently?” Decrying, “You’re a bad performer” is essentially yelling at the person – and yelling doesn’t make something easier to hear.

Size up the general shape of any external issues.

You’ll want to get a understanding of the “outside of work” issues. You don’t need to pry for details – just see if you can get a sense of the shape of things. Are there issues that could be solved through a more flexible work schedule? (For example, having the person take an afternoon off to handle a situation.) Are there issues that are emotionally taxing on them? (For instance, a sick family member can obviously bear a great toll on a person). In some cases, you might consider offering a short personal leave, so the person can focus on finding stability with their personal situation. If you do this, you’ll want to set expectations about their performance when they return.

Figure out if you have Problem A or Problem B.

One of our Watercooler members, Paul Sanwald, a VP of Engineering at a small fitness startup, shared an excellent framework for thinking about how to approach an underperforming employee…

Figure out which of these is true: (A) The employee knows they haven’t been productive or (B) The employee thinks they’re productivity has been acceptable. As a manager, your job is to figure out which of these two situations you’re in. The first (Problem A) is a problem of everyone understanding the consequences of unacceptable productivity. The second situation (Problem B) is a disagreement on understanding what acceptable level of productivity is.

One of the ways to discern if you have Problem A or B on your hands is to ask simply ask: “How have you been feeling about your performance lately?” Based on this answer, you’ll know which of these problems is true for you.

What to do if you have Problem A: The employee knows they’re underperforming.

If the employee knows they haven’t been performing well, here’s a recommendation of how to structure the conversation:

  1. Recognize the problem: Before meeting, ask the person to reflect on their performance: What’s going well? Not well? Get their perspective, and then offer your own.
  2. Identify the cause: Is the reason for underperformance something you did or didn’t do, as a manager? (Here are some questions to ask to figure that out). Is it situational to the task they were given? Is is systemic to the work environment? Are there mitigating factors you weren’t initially aware of?
  3. Explore possible solutions: Discuss different possible routes to resolve the underlying cause of poor performance. For example, if the person works best with greater context, you as a manager need to be providing more detail and support on the project. However, if you’ve already been doing that consistently, another potential option is for that person to get a different job. “Best outcome” doesn’t always mean just forcing the person to “work harder” and stay at the company. Consider fit, and what is best for you, the other person, and the team.
  4. Outline next steps: You’ll want to plan out concrete next steps to address the underlying cause of the issue. What are the actions both you and the employee will take? By when? Will there be a follow-up conversation to check back in and see if those actions are fulfilled, and how they are going?

What to do if you have Problem B: The employee doesn’t know they’re underperforming.

If an employee doesn’t believe their performance is suffering in any way, Esther Derby, a Watercooler member and well-known organizational consultant, recommends that you consider:

  • Does this person know that their co-workers feel they can’t rely on them? Have they talked to the person, directly, or only complained to you?
  • How do you know that the employee is underperforming? For instance, have you been told that the employee is “slow”? What does slow mean in this case? If the person spends more (perceived) time than other people doing similar work but does so with fewer errors, you might in fact prefer that.
  • Can you articulate the expected level of performance? What specifically does this person need to do to improve?

Don’t delay. As soon as you feel you might need to have “the talk,” the clock countdown starts: Every minute you postpone talking about an employee’s poor performance, the greater likelihood their performance will get even worse. Schedule a one-on-one meeting immediately, if one isn’t already on the books.

Yes, it’s far from fun to have to talk about poor performance with an employee. But you only exacerbate the damaging ramifications on your team by not having the conversation sooner.

The time to have “the talk” is now.


Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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