Difficult Conversations: The Underperforming Employee

Nina L. Kaufman, Esq.

Nina L. Kaufman, Esq.

Nina L. Kaufman, Esq., owner of Ask The Business Lawyer, is an award-winning business attorney, speaker, and Entrepreneur Magazine online contributor. She saves consulting and professional services companies time, money, and aggravation by serving as their outsourced legal counsel.

Posted on November 28, 2016 in Employee Issues

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Talking to an underperforming employee ranks right up there with telling a boyfriend he’s not pulling his weight in a relationship. Blecch. Not something you really look forward to. But if you don’t nip the situation in the bud early, it will fester until it reaches ugly proportions. You need to handle the situation directly, and tactfully. The boyfriend may get mad if you handle the situation poorly . . . but the employee could get litigious.

In her “A” response to the “Q” posed in a recent issue of the New York Enterprise Report, Barbara Kurka of the Katz Media Group offered these suggestions for turning the situation around:

  1. Think before you speak. This is a delicate situation that needs to take place in a private setting and not be done in a rush. If you’re not prepared to explain, dispassionately, how the employee is not measuring up and what she can do to improve, you’re not ready for the conversation.
  2. Know your standards. What does underperformance mean in your company? For that position? Are you using objective standards to measure performance (e.g., sales figures, renewed contracts)? What does the position require? The less objective your standards are, the more you could be wandering into a potential discrimination situation.
  3. How long has the employee been underperforming? Is this a chronic problem or a situational problem? If it’s chronic, perhaps the employee isn’t right for the job. Or perhaps the company standards and benchmarks have not been clear. If the problem arose recently, look at the factors that might have had an impact: industry conditions, lack of cooperation from other employees or personal problems. While you want to listen attentively, you want to be sure to steer the conversation back to “what will get the employee to meet our standards?” You don’t want to get embroiled in sorry sagas of personal problems.
  4. Decide what you’re willing to do to help the situation. Are you willing to provide more training or other resources to help the employee improve? Within what (realistic) time frame do you want to see improvement?
  5. Confirm your conversation in writing. Make a plan for improvement that both you and the employee feel comfortable agreeing to, and set realistic goals for achieving it. Follow up on deadlines and timetables.

Like many employee-related situations, difficult conversations can lead you into thorny legal issues. Get some coaching from your company’s employment attorney to learn the right way to conduct them.

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