columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I'm a new manager and I'm wondering about consequences. When an employee is not meeting expectations, you frequently mention that a manager should clearly explain the potential consequences if the issue is not fixed, up to and including letting the person go. What are those consequences prior to being fired? I'd like to get a better understanding of the kind of tools I have as a manager to impose consequences.

Green responds:

It depends on the situation.

If it's a serious performance issue that ultimately must be fixed in order for the person to stay in their role, then that should take you down a path of progressively serious warnings about what changes you need to see. The first conversation in that process will be pretty informal, but if a few of those conversations (along with clear feedback) don't solve things, in most cases you'll want to move to a more formal performance plan, with a timeline and benchmarks for the person to meet, and the understanding that you'll need to see specific improvements within that time period in order for the person to stay in the job. (There are some exceptions to this, like when the employee is so new that it doesn't make sense to go through that whole process, or when it's clear that the issues are so significant and the chances of the person being able to meet those benchmarks so remote that you'd just be prolonging an inevitable outcome.)

But there are other situations -- the ones I think you're asking about -- where the issue isn't severe enough that you'd ever be likely to fire the person over it, but is still something of concern. In those cases, you can explain to the employee that if they don't resolve issue X, it could impact future performance evaluations, future raises, promotion potential, the type of projects they're assigned to, and/or what types of growth opportunities they're offered. That last one will depend on exactly what the issue is -- obviously you don't want to deny someone the opportunity to improve, but in some cases it's practical to conclude that you'd be better off investing your presumably limited development resources in other people.

Keep in mind that consequences should rarely be punitive -- think outcome, not punishment. For example, if someone is making poor decisions in their work, a reasonable consequence might be that you supervise them more closely. It would not be reasonable to, say, deny them a day off as a punishment.

Also, sometimes an effective consequence is just "we're going to have a serious conversation about this." Consequences don't always have to be formal, and sometimes formal consequences can be overkill. In many -- in fact, probably most -- situations, an appropriate consequence is simply a serious conversation with you, asking about what happened and what the plan is for avoiding it in the future. On a healthy staff, that will often be all the consequence you need to hold someone accountable and get things back on track. Of course, when that doesn't solve the problem, then you'd escalate in seriousness from there -- but that is usually the right place to start.

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