Here's How Good Managers Give Bad Employees Feedback

What manager likes to give low-performing employees feedback? Not many, but it's part of the job. Here's how the best do it with great success.

Raise your hand--who likes to discipline an employee? I hear crickets chirping in the background.

Yet discipline is a cornerstone of highly productive companies. Without it, employee performance is at risk.

But don't see it as a negative. If conducted with a constructive, future focus, it provides consistency, guidance, and valuable feedback both to and from the problem employee.

The best managers employ a face-to-face discussion to deal with low performers, and employees with attitude problems in general. This conversation is best handled on the manager's end when they're well prepared and have a game plan. Here's how they do it:

1. Preparation

Great managers will analyze the problem first to understand all perspectives. When having the face-to-face, these four questions are crucial to cover a managers' behind, and set the right expectations and accountability measures with both parties before moving forward. (You want a "yes" answer to all four.)

  • Does the employee understand what the problem is?
  • Does the employee really understand the expected level of performance?
  • Does the employee fully understand what will happen if performance standards are not met?
  • Have you, as the manager, gotten all the facts? Who, what, where, when, why, and how?

2. When, where, and how

Great managers don't delay. They're proactive and aim to fix the problem sooner than later. But they're wise enough to back off while tempers are high and will only engage the situation after a cooling-off period. When exactly is best? Some managers prefer to address problems at close of business, the end of a shift, the end of the week, or just before some downtime. The smartest managers take into account what effect the discussions will have on the team. Great managers will always respect privacy. Some prefer a neutral location; others will put the employee at ease by coming to their work space, if secluded enough.

3. Coach and counsel

Great managers are exceptional coaches. They expose the problem, ask for agreement, and work toward a mutual solution with parameters for follow-up that both people will agree to. They coach and counsel with these principles in mind:

  • Discuss performance issues, not the person.
  • Limit the discussion to facts, not assumptions.
  • Be objective; back yourself up with documentation and records.
  • Spell out clearly what's acceptable and how to achieve it.
  • Listen and allow for venting.
  • Share the blame, if necessary.
  • Focus on the future, not the past.
  • Find a better way. Use open-ended coaching questions to draw the employee out.
  • Affirm your employees' ideas and, when possible, add yours as suggested improvements. (Don't demoralize them further by telling them they're wrong constantly.)
  • Allow employees to save face.
  • Summarize what's been said and what you both agreed to.
  • Put it in writing if it's serious enough.
  • End on a high note of confidence that improvement can happen. Be available and encourage them to seek you out when needed.
  • Follow up. Set a time and place to review progress.

4. Facing denials or resistance

Some problem employees--we all have them--may really test people's patience and deny being the root of the problem. When good managers face this type of resistance, the first thing they do comes from their high emotional intelligence: They stay calm, cool, and objective. They'll use repetition (in a calm and assertive voice), which helps to stay focused and drill home the point. What you'll never see them do is apologize. This helps avoid argumentative baiting. When dealing with the "broken record" of denial, good managers may even acknowledge it and any criticism thrown their way, and will resist counter-attacking (this minimizes the risk of getting sucked into the employee's drama).

Your employee is disruptive and has a total attitude problem. Now what?

OK, I know what you're saying. By now, just fire the guy! But hold on: Before pulling the trigger on your termination gun, as hard and counter-intuitive as this may sound, exercise more restraint. If nobody is in danger and the workplace is not a hostile environment, you may have a talented and skilled employee--while clueless and rough around the edges--who could benefit from some strict boundaries and discipline. That's what good managers who see the potential of their imperfect people would do. Consider these options first.

  • As mentioned before, always tie the attitude problem directly and specifically to a performance issue.
  • Ask lots of questions to uncover the heart of the problem. Most of the time, after some processing, the employee will acknowledge they're the issue, because their managers exposed the problem and came to the truth. Some employees may even filter themselves out of the company as a result, saving everyone grief. Where there's light, cockroaches scatter. But give them a chance to admit wrongdoing and express regret.
  • Ask for a commitment and draft a 60- or 90-day performance-improvement contract with the employee.
  • Follow established HR guidelines and company policies to stay legal and compliant. Document everything.
  • Make the connection for the employee--identify the results and impact of attitude problems in the frame of a performance issue.
  • Finally, if all else fails, and the behavior continues, pull the termination trigger. And fast.

Get Employees to be Accountable

By Marcel Schwantes