Handling Difficult Employee Performance Conversations (A Practical Guide)

By Paul Cortissoz

guide to handling difficult employee performance conversations

This practical guide was developed for HR professionals to share with leaders at all levels to help them effectively manage these important conversations.

For most HR professionals, the first quarter of the year is an extremely busy period managing the year-end Performance Cycle. Running workshops for managers and employees on preparing for their review. Leading talent and succession planning initiatives. Ensuring the merit and bonus process runs smoothly. The list goes on. One of the most important items for me during this time period as an HR Business Partner was coaching leaders on how to handle specific year-end performance conversations- especially the difficult ones.

Here are some important reminders to share with leaders to help them with handling difficult employee performance conversations.

Be Clear on The “Why” Of The Conversation

Everything starts here

The goal is to help the employee and provide them with the opportunity and support to improve their performance. Even if that ultimately means they are not able to course correct and you need to end the employment relationship because….

As a leader, you are responsible to your people – not for them

As a leader you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and know you have done everything you could to help them be successful. That means providing them with all the conditions to achieve in their role.  

Being clear on your expectations, ensuring they have the resources to get the job done, providing them ongoing coaching and feedback, recognizing and rewarding good performance and providing them guidance and support to advance their career.

Their role is to step-up, perform and come forward early if they are experiencing difficulties. 

Responsibility is a two-way street.

Sometimes things don’t work out that way.

In these cases here are some practical tips to help you manage these difficult employee performance conversations:

Before the Conversation

  • Don’t Wait Until Year EndThere is no single conversation that will “fix” employee performance issues.  It is part of an ongoing dialogue that needs to happen throughout the performance year. What makes these conversations more difficult is when that has not occurred, and the focus becomes on “the conversation”. If you wait, you have made it more difficult for both you and them. Make the time throughout the year to save yourself time at year-end.
  • Shift Your Focus – Let’s face it. Most people do not enjoy having to provide difficult feedback and managing poor performance issues. It’s much easier (and a lot more enjoyable) to work with high performing employees. Many times managers focus on how they will perform in the conversation, what they will say, how their employee will react and imagining worst case scenarios. It’s a natural human emotion. However, let’s come back to the most important thing – the “why” you are having the conversation in the first place. If your intention it truly to help the employee, that becomes your guidepost going in and shifts the focus off of yourself. It also shifts the tone of the conversation. If you are genuinely trying to help them, they will sense it and not feel as threatened. Doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easy but approaching it this manner allows for more open and honest discussion.
  • Prepare, Prepare, Prepare – Organize your observations and feedback you have received from others. Many times, managers do not work with their employees on a daily basis or are part of a virtual team. In these cases, tools like 360 assessments can be very helpful in gaining a well-rounded perspective on their performance. Whether you use a formal 360 assessment or not, ensure you are clear on the performance gap and have validated it with others.

During The Conversation

Here is a simple yet powerful four step method to frame your feedback during the conversation:

  1. Focus On Behaviors – It’s not personal. It’s about their specific behaviors and actions that are falling short of expectations. The key here is specific. Behind very quantitative goal you set for employees (e.g. increasing sales by xx%) is a series of actions and behaviors they need to perform to achieve that goal. That’s where the focus of the conversation lies. Being overly general will not improve their performance.
  2. Discuss The Impact – If the behaviors are the “what”, then discussing the impact is the “why”. It’s simply not enough to share where they are off course.  It is equally important to share the impact of their actions or behaviors on the business, the team, colleagues, customers etc. When employees understand the impact of their actions or behaviors they are more likely to correct them.
  3. Be Clear On The Ask – Paint a clear picture as to what success looks like. Use examples and share your own experiences. Ask them for their thoughts and input. Even better, have them describe to you in the conversation what specific actions they will take and what that looks like for them. The most effective conversations are 2-way ones.
  4. Align On Next Steps – This is sometimes the most overlooked part of the conversation. You think they understand what you said. They think they understand as well. However, what you thought you said, what you said, and what they heard can be three different things. Ensure you recap the conversation and you are both aligned on what needs to be addressed, by when and how you will both work together to address it.

After The Conversation

  • Have A Documented Plan –If or when the time comes the you may need to end the employment relationship, your HR Business Partner will always ask what you have done and documented to date. Waiting until year end to document just starts the clock over again. But that’s not the most important reason to document. The greatest benefit is actually showing you care enough to outline a plan of the steps you will both take to ensure they get back on track. For some people it also is “the thing” that signals to them that they need to take it seriously. Don’t just document to “create a paper trail” to terminate. Document to outline each of your responsibilities and the action plan to address the performance gap. This comes back to your intention to help them course correct.
  • Follow-Up Frequently – Helping employees with performance issues is not a “one and done” thing.  It is important to conduct regular 1-on-1’s to discuss progress and provide additional feedback. New or different behaviors are best reinforced with more frequent follow-up meetings.
  • Catch Them Doing It Right – The best way to reinforce desired behavior it to positively reinforce it in the moment. Studies have shown that people have anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, with as many as 98% of them being exactly the same as we had the day before, and 80% of them negative. We as humans it seems naturally gravitate to the negative. Look for the positive. Again it comes back to intention. If you are genuinely trying to help them, and they are responding to your feedback, then recognize them for it.

Having difficult employee performance conversations is not something most leaders look forward to. Instead of having it build up to a more difficult year-end event, make the time throughout the year to share your observations and feedback. Use these steps before, during and after the conversation to set both yourself, and your employee, up for success. Do not lose sight of why you are having the conversation in the first place.

You are responsible to your people, not for them. That means knowing you have done everything you possibly can to help them be successful. The rest will be up to them.

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About the Author

Paul Cortissoz, CEO & founding partner of HR Soul has decades of senior level corporate HR experience in leading global organizations. Learn more about Paul Cortissoz's professional expertise and accomplishments.