Addressing performance problems: 7 steps to success

Talking with employees about their performance problems can be an uncomfortable moment for any manager. But it’s also a crucial part of the job and, if done well, will ultimately make a manager’s job much easier.

Here are seven steps to planning and executing such discussions:

1. Schedule the meeting and set the stage. Make clear what the meeting is about and what you want to discuss. Help the employee feel at ease from the outset. But don’t get caught up in small talk.

Emphasize that this meeting is important and you want it to be productive. Provide an overview of what you want to discuss. Make it clear you don’t expect to do all the talking.

2. Describe the problem. Focus on the employee’s results and behavior in concrete, nonjudgmental terms. Cite specific examples and let the employee respond. Don’t throw out vague criticisms without having specifics to back them up. Example:

Too vague: “Your work has been sloppy lately.”

Specific: “Your last three reports have contained an unacceptable number of statistical errors. Let me show you …”

If there is more than one problem to discuss, address them individually. Don’t bring up new problems until you’ve thoroughly discussed the current one.

3. Reinforce performance standards. Your employee already should know the standards you expect, so review them and then move on.

If the employee challenges the validity of a standard, calmly state your reasons for requiring it, and gently steer the conversation back to the reasons the person didn’t comply. If necessary, refer to the employee’s job description.

4. Develop a plan for improvement. Your preparation for the meeting should have included a plan for helping the employee improve. During the meeting, the employee may suggest additional solutions. Agree on a method for improving performance in the short run, and establish some options in case the first method proves ineffective.

5. Offer your help. Show your commitment by offering to help your employee obtain any necessary training, resources or other assistance to achieve the performance goals. Ask the employee what he or she needs to reach the goal.

6. Inject positive comments if possible. However, don’t be inaccurate just for the sake of being kind. If a poor-performing employee must eventually be terminated, a manager’s false praise could cause the employee to question the “real” reasoning for the termination. And that could spark a discrimination lawsuit.

7. Emphasize potential. Make sure to tell the employee that you believe in his or her ability to improve performance.


Use this ‘Memo to Managers‘ article to educate your supervisors. Paste the content into an e-mail, company newsletter or other communication. Edit as desired.