How to Tell an Employee Their Work Isn’t Good Enough

A script for outlining your expectations kindly, clearly, and firmly

Rebecca Fishbein
Published in
5 min readJun 25, 2019


Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Scripts is a weekly series dedicated to helping you navigate the tough conversations.

IfIf an employee is missing targets, blowing deadlines, or handing in shoddy work, it can be tempting to push off any conversation about it and hope that things get better on their own. But you’re not just doing yourself and your company a disservice by staying quiet. An employee who’s falling short deserves to know it so that they have the opportunity to self-correct before things get too dire. And having to fire someone is even more uncomfortable than stepping in earlier.

Delivering the news effectively, though, is a delicate art.“It’s important to remember that this person has emotions and feelings attached to the information they’re receiving,” says industrial-organizational psychologist Amy Cooper Hakim, author of Working with Difficult People and founder of the Cooper Strategic Group.

As a rough guideline, just follow the golden rule: “Handle this conversation the way you’d want it to be handled if you were on the other side,” says Justin Dauer, author of Cultivating a Creative Culture and executive at the technology company bswift. “As long as the dialogue is less oration-based and more collaboration-based, there are a lot of positives that could come out of it.” Here’s how to pull it off.

Step 1) Start with a compliment.

Diving straight into the bad might be counterproductive, making the employee less receptive to whatever comes out of your mouth next. Instead, Hakim recommends preemptively cushioning the blow with some good news.

“It’s important to couch the conversation by using a sandwich method,” she says. “Start with something positive. The meat is the negative critique, and the ending is also something positive.”

Hakim also suggests tying your opening compliment back to the reason for the discussion, reminding your employee of the strengths that led you to hire them in the first place. For example, you could say, “‘I hired you because you have this great quality, or this particular…



Rebecca Fishbein
Writer for

Rebecca Fishbein is a writer in Brooklyn & the author of GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO PEOPLE YOU HATE, out 10/15. Find her on Twitter at @bfishbfish.