man and woman employees in meeting
From leading with empathy to creating a measurable performance improvement plan, these tips will help business owners successfully address employee performance issues mid-crisis. — Getty Images/Drazen Zigic

Addressing an employee performance issue is never an easy task. During a crisis, speaking to a team member about low productivity, inappropriate behavior, or a bad attitude can feel even more daunting. Conversations around employee performance are still necessary in a crisis, but your approach should evolve depending on the severity of the issue and the nature of the crisis. Here’s what the experts say about managing a performance issue during difficult times.

[Read more: 5 Experts on How to Manage Employees Through Difficult Times]

Lead with empathy

Brian Dosal, CEO at Strety, told CO— that it’s important to approach an issue from a place of understanding and patience.

“Be empathetic. Don't assume the worst right now. In a crisis, everyone is truly ‘in this together.’ Communicate empathetically with whatever issues need to be worked through and be patient and understanding if improvements are needed. These are not normal times and, therefore, normal expectations should go out the window,” he said.

Start with an open mind and encourage clear communication. “Ask questions with a positive intent. The goal is to understand the employee’s perspective. Always assume positive intent on the employee’s behalf until you are proven otherwise,” Heather R. Wilson, owner and consultant at SagePros told CO—. Speak to the team member in private to make sure you have the full context for what might be causing the performance issue before you take the next step.

Assess how the issue will impact your business

Some performance issues are more serious than others. An employee who shows up late is different than an employee skimming money from the cash register. Your response should be proportional to the issue at hand.

“In a crisis, an organization should never ignore any actions or behaviors that could be grounds for immediate termination,” listing violating ethics and the code of conduct, displaying violence, stealing money or property and lying as things that should be addressed immediately. “Consequences should follow company policy,” said Wilson.

Likewise, a crisis is a time to show some grace and flexibility. If the performance issue seems minor, a response or a conversation in the moment is the best practice, says Wilson. “No matter how small the performance concern is, the leader needs to address it. The leader should share the observations and listen to the employee’s response. If the poor performance or the behavior becomes a pattern, then the leader should pivot to the organization’s formal performance management system.”

Communicate empathetically with whatever issues need to be worked through and be patient and understanding if improvements are needed.

Brian Dosal, CEO, Strety

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Refer to your HR policy

Every organization should be able to fall back on an HR policy to guide them through a crisis. Your HR policy should outline how and when an employee’s performance will be reviewed, as well as performance expectations. If you don’t have an employee handbook, write one that includes:

  • Company values and mission.
  • Code of conduct that includes your anti-harassment policy, substance-free work policy and disciplinary action procedures.
  • Dress code.
  • Equal employment and nondiscrimination policy.
  • Office environment: work hours, use of workplace equipment, workplace safety and ADA accommodations.
  • Compensation and performance review policies.

[Read more: How & When to Conduct Employee Reviews: A Guide]

Develop a performance improvement plan

For employee performance issues that are more substantial, establish a plan to set your team member up for success moving forward. “Actively listen for the root cause of the performance issue. What is missing? Is it tools? Is it resources? Is it support from you, a team member or a coworker?” said Wilson.

Consider your own expectations in addition to the employee’s perspective. In a crisis, things change quickly. “Managers shouldn't be focusing on performance issues because of the crisis, but instead on getting the best performance they can in the situation. That likely may be less than they were receiving pre-crisis. And that's OK,” said Dosal.

Work with your employee to develop a performance improvement plan that factors in these extenuating circumstances. Make sure to articulate your expectations for the team member’s performance in measurable terms, for instance: “Decrease late arrival times from three days (X) to one day (Y) per month.”

Keep communication open

An employee’s performance issue can sometimes impact the overall morale of a team, something leaders need to be especially sensitive to in a crisis. An individual’s performance issue should be kept private. Instead, reassure your other employees by holding a team meeting to acknowledge that the crisis has made work a little more challenging. “We are all humans doing our best in these uncertain times. It goes back to the golden rule — treat others the way that you want to be treated,” said Wilson.

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