Human Capital Management Blog

Strategies for HCM Professionals

5 tips for having tough conversations with employees about performance

disengaged employee

In an ideal world, every employee you hired would work out perfectly, and there would never be a reason to sit down and have one of those tough conversations. Unfortunately, sometimes employees don’t perform up to the levels you expect – and when that happens, those conversations are necessary.  

No one likes talking to an employee about how they’re struggling at the office. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have for anyone, and especially so if you’re an optimistic person who doesn’t like fixating on negative stuff. The reality, though, is that these conversations are necessary from time to time. After all, if you let employee issues fester, they’re likely to get worse. 

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, you’re not alone in this feeling. Jonathan Segal, a partner at Duane Morris, told the news source that the best strategy in this situation is just to bite the bullet and do it quickly. Delaying that talk is much worse than ripping the Band-Aid off, so to speak.

“When you finally have the difficult conversation you’ve put off for so long, it may appear retaliatory,” Segal explained. “Delaying only gives the employee power to make a preemptive strike. If you must defer the discussion, document what the conversation will be about, when it will occur and why you have to wait to talk at that particular time.”

So, besides “act fast,” what more do you need to know about having tough employee conversations? What’s the key to conducting them tactfully and getting real results? The following are five tangible tips that should help make things a bit easier.

Do it often
When you need to raise concerns about an employee’s performance, don’t wait to talk about it at the annual performance review. Having frequent conversations where you provide feedback, both good and bad, means you are focusing on your employee’s development, versus simply managing it. 

Be clear and specific
No one likes getting negative feedback that’s vague. It’s impossible to change your ways if you don’t know what specifically you need to change. So when you give employees criticism, make sure you have examples ready of what particular problems you’ve seen.

Let the conversation go two ways
Don’t just talk “at” the employee, lecturing them about everything that’s wrong with their work. Engage in a two-way conversation, allowing both sides to share their opinions about how the process is going and what issues have arisen. Listening well is just as important as speaking clearly about what problems exist.

Offer to help if possible
Sometimes, the most important thing you can say to a struggling employee is these six simple words – “What can we do to help?” Sometimes, managers can make simple changes to an employee’s process that can make things dramatically better, but they might never know unless they bother to ask.

Set clear goals for the future
Once you’ve finished a tough conversation about an employee’s performance, the final product should be a clear set of expectations about how things should change in the future. Make sure these are well established – in writing, if possible. This will make it far easier for everyone to improve moving forward.

Learn more about moving from a performance management approach to a performance development approach.

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