Two coworkers sitting together in a meeting.
Addressing an employee's poor performance is necessary for business success, but there are certain methods to follow and phrases to avoid in the process. — Getty Images/imtmphoto

As a leader, you’re inevitably going to come across employees whose performances aren’t up to par. In these instances, it’s your job to address the issue before it gets out of hand.

But having difficult conversations about where an employee is falling short can feel uncomfortable. Here are some tips for talking to employees about poor performance.

Don’t put it off

Delaying a necessary discussion about an employee’s performance — especially if it’s negatively impacting your company’s bottom line — can convey to the employee that you’re accepting of their lackluster effort. This disconnect might falsely communicate that the employee can get away with doing the bare minimum — or even less than that.

On the other hand, the employee might simply be unaware of your dissatisfaction and ultimately shocked or caught off guard when you finally confront them.

[Read more: How to Handle Employee Performance Issues During a Crisis]

Document it in writing

Prepare for your discussion by writing down everything you’d like to say to the employee. You should also make arrangements to document or record the conversation. Provide the employee with a copy of the documents so they know what to expect and can later reflect on the discussion.

Often, after talking to an employee about their poor performance, managers will craft an employee performance improvement plan (PIP). This document includes detailed information about what the employer expects from the employee going forward, as well as specific goals, benchmarks, and proposed solutions or resources to assist the employee.

Provide specific examples of poor performance

Rather than keeping the discussion broad, cite specific instances of your employee’s poor performance to support your claim. This will not only communicate to the employee exactly where they need to improve, but it will also cover your bases as the employer, preventing retaliation.

For instance, if an employee consistently shows up late or takes longer breaks than allotted, take note of specific instances of when the employee does this instead of just saying: “wastes company time.”

While standing your ground is important, don’t frame the discussion as an accusation or attack. Allow the conversation to be just that: a conversation, not a lecture.

Don’t accuse or attack

While standing your ground is important, don’t frame the discussion as an accusation or attack. Allow the conversation to be just that: a conversation, not a lecture.

Voice your concerns, then give your employee the time to respond and explain their side. Perhaps they’re feeling burnt out or overworked, or maybe they have a personal issue going on at home. Be empathetic and willing to listen, and work together to reach a mutual plan for a solution going forward.

[Read more: What Is Employee Training and Development?]

Use the correct language

When speaking with an employee about their poor performance, it’s important to use the right language. Be sure to come from a place of support and not to accuse your employee of anything. Additionally, don’t put the blame on yourself to cushion the blow. Rather, stay open-minded and allow room for your employee to express their own concerns and needs.

Phrases to use

Here are some specific phrases to use when discussing poor performance with an employee:

  • “We want you to succeed.”
  • “How can we help you succeed?”
  • “Do you have any feedback for us?”
  • “Is there anything we are doing that is making it difficult for you at work?”
  • “We feel there’s been a shift in your performance; how can we best support you?”
  • “Do you feel you are set up for success at work?”
  • “Are there any resources or tools you think might be helpful?”

Phrases to avoid

Here are some specific phrases to avoid when discussing poor performance with an employee:

  • “This is probably just as much our fault as yours.”
  • “We feel you are too [emotional, rigid, anxious, etc.]”
  • “You always [do this.]”
  • “You never [do that.]”
  • “What are you going to do to improve your performance?”
  • “Is your [disability/condition] causing you to underperform?”

Provide solutions — and be open to their suggestions

Rather than going into this discussion with the intent to put down the employee or threaten their security at your company, approach these conversations with a solution-based mindset. Come to the conversation with proposed solutions that are mutually beneficial, but also ask the employee what they believe will help them improve. Be willing to listen and meet them halfway. For instance, maybe they need more guidance or time on certain tasks. Put forth the extra effort to provide that support.

[Read more: How to Offer an Employee Assistance Program for Small Businesses]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published June 23, 2022