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Difficult conversations in employee performance

It’s likely that we’ve all had difficult conversations in our professional lives; times we’ve had information that we needed to pass on that we expect won’t be well received or times where we’ve had to ask questions that could lead to difficult or embarrassing answers. Those times aren’t fun, but they can be necessary.


Unfortunately, often there are times when managers fail to have these difficult conversations, and, because of this, they are doing a bigger disservice to themselves, their company, and most of all, their employees. As someone in HR, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received positive performance reviews only to find out the manager really didn’t think the employee was performing well, they just didn’t want to have the conversation letting them know of the problem. Because of this lack of information, the employee continues on their path to nowhere and the manager (and often others in the department) becomes more frustrated.


If I’m not doing something right or have failed to do something at all (either by oversite or lack of knowledge/ability/whatever), how can I be expected to improve if I’m not even aware of the issue? Even if I’m someone who tends to be a minimalist at work and just want to do enough to get by, what am I learning if no one says anything?


We hear and talk a lot about trust at work and various core values—if we can’t be honest, we might as well throw all that out the window. You do not have to be mean or rude, nor should you be, to have a difficult conversation. You should be factual, descriptive and supportive.


“You’re not doing a good job,” says nothing. “I’ve noticed you don’t appear to be listening to clients when they talk to you—you look at your phone, you don’t make eye contact, you don’t answer their questions, and we’ve gotten some complaints. Would you like me to model some interactions so you can see what I need from you or is there some other training or something else that you think would help?” That’s clearer and supportive. Most situations can lead to specific examples if you really get down to the issue. Then follow up with continued guidance or next steps as necessary.


The sooner you have these conversations, the easier it is to improve the behavior. Putting it off allows the behavior to become a habit and gives the impression that it’s acceptable. If it comes down to it and someone just flat out doesn’t want to do the job or doesn’t have the appropriate skills for it, unless they can learn and show improvement, then that’s not where they need to be. Most employees really do want to perform well.


Help employees understand your expectations and treat them with honesty and respect.



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