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

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

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

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

If 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 experience that I know is a win for our team,’” she says.

Then, hit them with the bad news: “You can then say, ‘However, I’ve noticed the deliverable is missing this key component. You’re not handing in your work on time. I believe that you can make it, that you can be successful here, and I’m here to support you.’” Without sacrificing directness, you can frame your criticism as encouragement rather than approaching it from a place of intimidation.

Step 2) Be specific.

One of your goals for this conversation should be for your struggling employee to understand exactly how and why they’re falling short of expectations. “It’s vital that the manager or HR representative use clear and direct language,” Hakim says.

And provide concrete examples of the problem, too: “Come armed with a paper trail. Have an email sent by a customer complaining about this person’s work,” she says. “If the employee tries to argue with you, make sure you can say, ‘Actually, I respectfully disagree. This had 13 typos. This customer complained the delivery was three weeks late.’ Clearly share what the issues are and be as direct as possible.”

Step 3) Ask how you can help.

There are plenty of reasons why an employee’s performance might slip. It could be that complications at home are bleeding into work. It could be that the employee is overwhelmed by a particular task — or that they’re underchallenged, and boredom is prompting them to slack off. Sometimes, expectations haven’t been laid out clearly, and the employee doesn’t even know that they’re missing targets. Whatever it is, you want to get to the root of the problem so you can assist the employee in getting back on track.

“This conversation can’t be a dump on the person receiving the feedback. It has to be a collaborative effort,” says Dauer. “You can say something like, ‘I noticed that you’re not hitting your quota. What can I do to help?’”

Step 4) Suggest some next steps.

Once you’ve assured your employee that you’re both on the same side, it’s time to come up with a concrete game plan. Be compassionate, but also make it clear that they can’t continue to fall short.

For instance, if your employee is struggling with the workload, or lacks the skills necessary to complete certain tasks, suggest that they take advantage of any resources the company offers, like training sessions or classes.

Or if they tell you they’re dealing with problems at home, suggest they take some time off or redistribute some work to the rest of the team until they can sort out their personal issues. “Say, ‘I’m really sorry to hear about that situation. What do you need from me in order to be successful in the office? Do you need to take some time off to handle this situation?’” says Hakim.

Step 5) Set a deadline for improvement.

Ultimatums are rarely motivating, but it is important to let a floundering employee know that there will be consequences if they can’t meet expectations.

“Don’t approach it with finality,” Dauer says. “I would say, ‘At the end of this month, if things haven’t improved, or your work/life balance is untenable, let’s reevaluate things at that point.’ It’s less threatening.”

Hakim agrees. “It’s very important to say, ‘I really am very hopeful that we will have a positive end result here, but I need to let you know we will be following up, whether that’s in one week or three months, to make sure that you’re on a better path and meeting deliverables,’” she says. “‘And if not, we have to have another discussion.’”

You want to be seen as approachable, but ultimately, as she notes, “the business is there to make money, [and] the person is at work to work.” If they can’t fulfill the obligations of their role even with a road map to improvement, it might be a sign that they just aren’t the right fit.

Step 6) Ask the employee to follow up.

No matter how clear and compassionate you are, anxiety might make it hard for the employee to recall everything that was said after the fact. So once you’ve outlined the problem and come up with a plan, put a safeguard in place to make sure you understand each other.

Hakim suggests saying something like, “Thank you so much for listening. I know this message may not have been what you hoped to hear when came into this office. To make sure we’re on the same page, make sure to send me an email recap of our dialogue, and let’s be sure to touch base in two weeks.” Not only will you both be sure of what you’re agreeing to, she says, but you’ll also have a paper trail, should you ever need it.

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.

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