Five Steps for Addressing an Employee’s Poor Performance

Five Steps for Addressing an Employee's Poor Performance
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When an employee’s job performance is subpar, it may seem like the best way to approach the conversation with them is gently and with subtlety. But when alerting an employee about the need for immediate change, subtlety is the last thing you want. It’s important to not be harsh in your approach, but clarity is crucial. An effective way of ensuring that an employee fully comprehends the areas of their work that need improvement is with this series of encounters, which serve as catalysts for productive conversations about performance, and escalate if change is not forthcoming.

1. Your first encounter should go something like this: “Joe, is everything going OK with you?  I’m asking because I’ve noticed that over the last few weeks, you’ve dropped the ball on some things (provide specific examples here, e.g. “the Johnson project”).  That’s not like you – is something going on or distracting you?”

2. If there is no noticeable improvement, approach the employee again.  “Joe, two weeks ago I asked if something was going on with you. You said no. But your performance hasn’t changed. It’s not up to par. I know you’re capable of better – you’ve demonstrated so for months (or years). What’s standing in your way right now? How can I help you get back on track?”

3. When there is still no change, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. “Joe, we’ve talked about this a couple of times now, yet I still see you struggling with your work: You’ve missed two deadlines and there were significant errors in your report this week. Let’s talk – I need to know what’s affecting your work so that I can help you.”

4. Things become serious when there is no improvement, and the employee needs to know how significant the issue has become. “Joe, you have a performance issue here that doesn’t seem to be changing or getting better in any way.  In fact, it’s getting worse.  We’ve talked about this several times.  I need to see immediate and significant progress, or your job will be at risk. You’re a valued member of the team and I support you, but I can’t help you if you don’t turn this around immediately. You need to take action, Joe. Now.”

5. Finally, let the employee know that there are major consequences to their performance issue.  “Joe, over the last two months, we have talked repeatedly about your job performance. The quality of your work has disintegrated significantly and it’s now become a serious problem.  It’s not too late to get back on track, but I do have to put this conversation in your file, because the next step is formal probation (or termination). Neither of us want that, Joe, and I am here to help. What is holding you back from top performance? I’m right here to help, but you need to tell me what’s going on, so I can take steps to avoid putting you on probation (or terminating you). 

The path to meaningful change lies in striking a delicate balance between support and accountability. As leaders, it is our responsibility to guide our employees toward excellence by addressing performance issues head-on. By asking the right questions, offering assistance, and setting clear expectations, we create an environment that fosters growth and development. While the conversations may be challenging, they are necessary for the individual’s professional growth and the overall success of the team.

Remember, change is achieved through open, honest, and unwavering communication. We can empower employees to embrace change, unleash their full potential, and thrive in their professional journey by being clear in our communications.

Kelly McDonald is an acclaimed speaker who specializes in consumer trends and changing demographics. She is the president of McDonald Marketing and has authored four bestselling books on the customer experience, leadership, and marketing — all from the standpoint of working with people “not like you”. Her book, How to Work With and Lead People Not Like You has been on two bestseller lists. Her other books include Let’s Talk About Race at Work, How to Market to People Not Like You, and Crafting the Customer Experience for People Not Like You


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