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6 Steps for Successful Employee Performance Discussions

Updated on April 23, 2013

Nipping problems in the bud

Virtually every workplace with employees has a system for dealing with performance deficiencies. Although almost no manager likes to deal with disciplining under-performing employees, it is a necessity if any business unit is going to rise to the top and succeed. But this doesn't mean that a written warning or a termination are early steps in the performance management process; in fact, for most employee opportunities, they shouldn't be. By the time an employee receives a written warning or is under threat of termination, a manager's problem with their issues should come as no surprise to them. Managers can ensure employee performance -- and loyalty -- simply by conducting performance discussions as needed.

Let's look at six vital steps in conducting effective performance discussions.

1. Have a witness

If possible, have a witness to any performance discussion you have with an employee, especially one that takes place behind closed doors (and all serious discussions should). Your witness should be another non-peer manager, preferably one with some insight into the specific performance deficiencies being addressed. A witness helps ensure accountability and impartiality from both parties in the discussion. I had a manager years ago who cautioned me against ever talking to a female behind closed doors alone, but there can be a lot more to worry about than just gender and harassment issues. Having a witness -- no matter the genders of the manager and employee involved -- can really help if the time comes to move further up the discipline ladder.

"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."

-- Ernest Hemingway

2. Let them talk

After presenting the employee with your concerns, it's best to simply hear what they have to say. The best managers know when to shut up and let the employee do the talking. Perhaps there are reasons for their issues of which the manager is unaware. Perhaps someone else in the workplace is preventing the employee from performing as they should. Maybe the deficiency is a simple training issue, or a maturity issue. Whatever the case, many times you'll get to the root of the problem a lot faster by letting the employee try to explain themselves.

This isn't to say that you should accept excuses for poor work habits (although if that's the route the employee chooses, it's still useful information), but you won't get anywhere if the employee feels like they're being stifled or that their (sometimes legitimate, sometimes not) concerns aren't being addressed.

3. Set clear expectations

After you've presented the employee with any deficiencies that need corrected, and heard what they've had to say, it's time to set some expectations. Be specific and authoritative. Restate company guidelines or previously agreed upon goals. Don't allow room for the employee to misinterpret what is expected of them. Ask what you can do to help the employee achieve the desired level of performance.

4. Establish a time frame

Just as important as setting clear expectations is establishing a clear time frame in which the employee must show improvement. Be as specific and fair as possible. Allow just enough time in which you believe the employee can overcome his or her deficiency but no more. In some cases, the need for correction may be more important than in others (in the case of, say, an employee who is unfriendly towards your customers), so you may expect that they correct their issue(s) immediately. Be sure to let the employee know you'll be monitoring their progress and will provide appropriate feedback as necessary.

5. Document everything

Immediately after the performance discussion, it's important to document, to the best of your ability, everything that was said. Some companies have official forms for recording discussions like this with employees, but if yours doesn't any sheet of paper will do as a record. Include both your statements and the employee's in your documentation. Be sure to list any goals that you set forth as well as a follow-up date if appropriate.

Such records of discussion can be useful later when writing performance reviews or for monitoring an employee's development over time. If the time comes to pursue further disciplinary action such as a write-up or termination, these records can help you justify to your own boss or to Human Resources the path you choose to take with the employee.

Some managers put off writing these records of discussion until a later time, but it's best to do it while the discussion is still fresh in your mind. You're not doing yourself any favors if you risk forgetting an important element of the conversation.

6. Follow up

It's vital to follow up with the employee to make sure they've corrected their deficiencies or that they're making meaningful progress in doing so. If you see that they're not making progress or haven't fulfilled your expectations in the expected time frame, then it's time for another discussion or perhaps something more serious. And, just as importantly, if they have met your expectations you need to let them know that you've noticed. A little bit of recognition, even if it's for something that's part of an employee's job description, goes a long way towards good performance and loyalty.

Next steps

If an employee is successful in overcoming their shortcomings in one area, it may be time to give them more responsibility to expand their skill set and job knowledge. However, if you find that your expectations are not being met or, as often happens, an employee backslides into old, bad behaviors, you may need to move on to the next steps in the performance management process. It's never pleasant to give someone a written warning or to terminate them, but it is part of doing business and can't be avoided if you want to be successful yourself. In a future Hub, I'll look at steps for determining when a written warning is appropriate as well as tips on how to give one in a way that will (hopefully) lead to a positive outcome for both your company and your employee.

Use your voice

How many performance discussions would you have with an employee before a written warning?

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