It's a moment every business leader dreads. You have an employee who's not performing well at his or her job. You may know that losing this job will cause your employee economic hardship. You may even like him or her. But in fairness to the rest of your team and your company, you can't keep this person on unless things change big-time.

Is there anything you can do to give this low performer the best chance of improving before you have to lower the boom? Yes, according to Adam Ochstein, founder of Chicago HR services firm StratEx Partners. The secret is in how you approach the issue with your problem performer. Sit down with the person and follow these steps:

1. Talk about the elephant in the room.

There's a decent chance your poor performer knows things aren't going well and is already quite nervous before the meeting even starts. If you want him or her to really hear what you have to say, you need to begin by addressing that nervousness. "Don't waste time sugar coating what the reason for the meeting is. However, gauge the employee's emotions first, and talk them through their nerves," Ochstein advises.

2. Focus only on what you care about the most.

First of all, Ochstein points out, nothing you're going to say should come as a surprise, because you've been giving all of your employees feedback on an ongoing basis. If not, then that's on you, and it's something you should acknowledge and apologize for.

Either way, it's very easy for employees to get overwhelmed when they get a lot of information all at once about how they need to improve, Ochstein warns. Find one or a maximum of two issues you most want to see corrected, and restrict yourself to those.

3. Be specific.

Don't say, "You're late to work too often." Say, "You were 20 minutes late on Monday and Tuesday last week, and 40 minutes late on Friday." You should have one or more specific examples for every piece of feedback you give.

This will help, not only because employees may be defensive, but also because they may genuinely not know what they're doing wrong. Early in my career, I gave feedback to a writer who had turned in a sub-par article while standing in the hallway of our magazine's offices. Why? Because I'd never done it before and hadn't stopped to think how it would feel to her. Also, because neither she nor I had a private workspace, so I couldn't think where else to have a conversation. If I'd asked, I could have borrowed an office or conference room--but I had no idea I had that option until my boss gave me feedback on my feedback.

4. Ask why.

And really listen to the answers. "Help the employee identify the root of the problem," Ochstein advises. Maybe the person is missing deadlines "because they don't have enough one-on-one time with managers, or don't have efficient resources to complete the projects," Ochstein says. Keep exploring until you have a thorough understanding of what's going wrong.

5. Let them know you're on their side.

Discussing employees' underperformance is a necessary first step to firing them. They know this as well as you do. So when you sit someone down to tell them there's a problem with how they're doing their job, that person may have no idea whether you genuinely want to help or are simply gathering ammunition.

Make your good intentions as clear as you can with phrases like "We will get through this," or "We will find a way to overcome this," Ochstein advises. You may also want to tell them about a time when you had to make a correction in your own work, to let them know that this isn't the end of the world, or the end of their career.

6. Get a commitment to specific improvements.

You and the employee should each leave the meeting with a clear idea of what's going to happen next. For instance, he or she will make different child-care arrangements so as to show up at work on time. Perhaps you will make resources available or otherwise give the poor performer more support.

You should also both have a clear agreement as to exactly when to expect things to happen. "Keep the accomplishments small and attainable at first to build up the employee's confidence," Ochstein says.

7. Send a recap.

"Many fail to include this step and it's arguably the most crucial one," Ochstein says. Your written recap should include takeaways and next steps. It should also lay out clearly whatever consequences you discussed if improvements don't occur. "If this becomes a repeat meeting, they may not be the best fit for the role," Ochstein says.

8. Follow through.

Now that you've started this process with your poor performer, he or she deserves your continued attention. Make sure to plan a follow-up meeting in another month or several months, as appropriate, so you can re-evaluate the employee's performance and talk about obstacles encountered.

But don't wait until then to talk about any problems that arise. "Feedback should be given on an ongoing basis, and never kept for once a month," Ochstein says. "Regardless of how minor they may be, address concerns immediately, before they turn into bigger issues down the road."

Published on: Feb 25, 2015
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