6 tips to help managers approach–and turn around–poor performers

No manager enjoys having “the talk” with employees. But ignoring an employee’s poor performance won’t make the problem go away; it’ll only make things worse.

If your managers take a head-in-the-sand approach to employees’ job failings, they’re not alone. According to a recent survey, only 31% of U.S. workers agree with the statement, “My manager confronts poor performance.”

And organizations that tolerate poor performance will drive away top performers who are unhappy working in such an environment.

The solution: Encourage managers to approach workers in a fair, problem-solving manner. By confronting poor performers in a tactful way, they’ll find that one of two things happen: Employees will either improve or move.

Tell managers they can improve the odds for positive change by following these six rules of employee engagement:

1. Be specific

If an employee has been consistently late, specify the number of times or amount of time. Avoid exaggerations, such as “You are totally unreliable.” Instead, say, “This is the third time in one week that you have been at least 10 minutes late.”

If this issue has been a problem in the past, remind the employee when you have pointed out the offense previously. Say, “I indicated to you last Tuesday that coming in late is not acceptable.”

2. Focus on business reasons

Always refocus the employee on the stated business reason for your comments. Example: “It’s important for you to be here at the designated time since customers rely on our immediate responsiveness when they have questions about their orders.”

If you need to correct something like inappropriate casual dress, reiterate the company guidelines. Don’t comment on the employee’s personal taste. Straying into areas that have nothing to do with workplace performance will result in a loss of credibility with that person. Stay focused on the employee’s job performance and how it affects the company.

3. Give timely feedback

A common management mistake is to bombard employees with feedback at their appraisal, but remain mostly quiet during the rest of the year. The appraisal should be a review of the discussions held during the year. Nothing mentioned at that time should come as a surprise to the employee.

That’s why it’s vital to provide all employees with both positive and negative feedback on a consistent basis.

Poor performers require more feedback, not less. Make them aware of what they did wrong immediately.

One caveat: Don’t try to give corrective feedback when the employee is upset or emotional. Wait until he or she has calmed down.

4. Consider employees’ personality

Everyone handles feedback differently. Some people want it straight, while others are more sensitive. With an employee who wants straightforward feedback, you can get away with saying, “You gave the customer the wrong information because you didn’t have the updated manual. How do you think we should handle it?”

To get through to a more sensitive employee, take a different approach. For instance, “I understand why you provided the customer with this information. Are you aware that the guidelines have changed? What do you suggest we do in this situation?”

Regardless of the person’s personality, be clear and straightforward in your communication.

5. Check for understanding

Avoid asking close-ended questions during the discussion or when summarizing. At the end of a confrontation, don’t ask, “Do you understand?” The employee could simply say “Yes.”

Instead, ask the employee to summarize his understanding of the situation. Have him lay out actions, steps or accountabilities that were discussed.

6. Maintain a paper trail

Good documentation, such as a performance log for each employee, allows you to easily identify and prove recurring problems. (This could also help if the employee decides to sue.)

After each meeting with the poor performer, managers should prepare notes that summarize the discussions. Include: the problem, action taken to correct or eliminate it, dates, result that occurred and any comments. This will help them recall feedback sessions when the time comes to conduct an annual performance appraisal.

Advice: Make sure managers understand that performance logs aren’t supposed to be “little black books” that only chronicle mistakes and errors. Logs are an appropriate place to note examples of when employees perform in acceptable and outstanding ways.

Giving employee feedback: It’s as easy as A, B, C

Performance feedback should reflect these principles:

Accurate. Offer objective, concrete descriptions of the problem, not vague statements. Document specific examples and dates. Avoid exaggerations like “always” and “never.”

Business-oriented. Focus on the business reasons behind corrective comments. Don’t offer personality critiques. Cite written performance goals and company guidelines that aren’t being met.

Consistent. Provide regular feedback throughout the year; don’t dump it all on the employee at performance review time.