Every HR manager and team leader will go through periods when business productivity falls short of expectations, which means it could be time to have some difficult conversations about poor employee performance.
It's never easy to tell employees they need to raise their standards, but there are things you can do to make these discussions as positive as possible.
Approaching them in the right way will also help to ensure all parties can take something useful away from these talks and move forward with optimism.
Provide written information in advance
The employee shouldn't feel like they're being ambushed, or suddenly confronted with information that comes as a surprise to them.
A good way to avoid this is by providing certain pieces of information, in writing, in advance. This might include a list of talking points you want to go over and possibly some examples when the individual's performance fell short of their objectives.
If they're able to read and digest this information ahead of the meeting, the worker will be better prepared to talk through these issues and collaborate with you to find solutions.
Find a quiet and comfortable place to talk
You can help to ensure the conversation goes as smoothly and positively as possible by choosing the right location for it.
Make sure you're able to reserve a private, neutral space in your workplace where you can have a quiet conversation without being interrupted. There's a good chance the employee will already be feeling nervous or stressed, so it's crucial that the discussion can take place in a calm environment.
Finding the right setting for your talk will make it easier for you to get proceedings off on the right foot. Focus on setting a positive tone and clarifying that, while there are some concerns about the individual's performance, you want to work closely with them to explore these issues and find a constructive route forward.
Give the employee a chance to speak
It's crucial that these conversations aren’t one-sided affairs, where workers feel like they're being lectured and chastised, with no fair opportunity to express their own thoughts and tell their side of the story.
You can start by outlining your concerns and offering some data-based observations, but make sure you're giving the employee plenty of chances to share their own thoughts on these issues and what might be causing them.
Allowing time for people to speak freely increases the likelihood that you’ll get to the underlying reasons for their declining performance, which will give you a better chance of finding effective, lasting solutions.
Furthermore, free and open communication between managers and staff will contribute to stronger employee relations and a more positive company culture overall, which could be the key to people doing their best work.
Focus on results rather than intent
You could be getting into dangerous territory if the conversation starts to focus on the employee's intent. You might be disappointed that a particular team member seems to have lost interest in reaching their goals or has a negative attitude in the workplace, for example, but there's little to gain from getting preoccupied with intangible issues like these.
A more productive strategy is to focus on data and results, which will put your concerns about the person's performance into context.
For example, a statement such as, 'We've noticed that your sales calls during the last quarter were 20% down on the previous quarter', is more useful and constructive than saying something like, 'You haven't been putting in as much effort in recent months'.
Ask what you can do to help
It's possible that an employee's poor performance could be the result of other problems or challenges they're facing - for example, issues with their health or in their personal life.
If this is the case, the best thing you can do to support them - and consequently facilitate their improvement at work - is to make it clear that you're ready to offer help, should they need it.
There might be reasonable adjustments you can make to their working arrangements that would help them raise their efficiency and productivity. If a parent with young children is struggling to get to work on time, for example, you could consider being more flexible with their start and finish times.
However, it's also important to monitor these provisions to ensure they're contributing to the improvements you're looking for, and not providing an opportunity for unscrupulous staff to take advantage.
Set clear expectations going forward
One of the top priorities of any employee appraisal - but particularly those intended to address poor performance - should be to come up with a forward-looking plan that gives the worker clear targets to aim for.
Work alongside the individual in question to develop goals that you both believe to be fair and relevant, and set a reasonable timeframe for them to be achieved.
It's also crucial to establish a clear communication plan to help you stay in frequent contact and spot any problems or obstacles to performance as soon as they arise.