We’ve all been there. You stare at your computer and a familiar knot forms in your stomach. One of your direct reports has consistently missed the mark on deadlines, and the quality of work hasn’t met expectations.

Throughout my 10-year career, I already have had my fair share of navigating these tricky situations where an employee’s performance isn’t where it should be.

But here’s the good news:  addressing these issues head-on not only helps you salvage the situation, but it also helps the employee to grow and thrive in their role.

To handle these situations with grace and support, here are some best practices for handling these situations with your employees.

Recognizing the Signs

When it comes to supporting your employees, performance issues don’t always equal red flags. It’s important to understand the root problems for their performance and frame your support accordingly.

To help better understand what’s going on, there are some common signs, both in terms of work output and behavior, that might indicate an employee isn’t meeting expectations.

1. Missed deadlines.

This is a big one, and it can manifest in a few ways. Consistently missing deadlines can disrupt workflow and impact team projects. It can also signal issues with time management, prioritization, or workload capacity.

2. Poor quality work.

This could mean errors in written work, incomplete tasks, or work that doesn’t meet the required standards. For example, an intelligence analyst might fail to maintain accurate and up-to-date intelligence reports, or an IT auditor may not accurately identify security vulnerabilities in computer systems.

3. Lack of engagement.

Is the employee constantly disengaged in meetings, showing a lack of initiative, or exhibiting low morale? This can be a sign of boredom, dissatisfaction with the role, or even a personal issue that’s affecting their work performance.

4. Communication issues.

Does the employee struggle to communicate effectively, leading to misunderstandings or missed information? This can include unclear written communication, difficulty expressing themselves verbally, or failing to keep you or the team updated on progress.

5. Changes in work habits.

Sometimes, a shift in behavior can be a red flag. This could include increased absenteeism, arriving late or leaving early more frequently, or a noticeable decline in productivity.

6. Negative attitude.

A consistently negative attitude can bring down team morale and hinder collaboration. Watch for negativity directed toward colleagues, projects, or the company itself.

It’s important to remember that clear communication of expectations is key to avoiding misunderstandings.

Take time to clearly outline performance expectations for your team members. This could be done through individual development plans, project briefs, or team meetings. Setting a baseline and ensuring everyone is on the same page from the start will help you identify performance issues sooner and can prevent some problems altogether.

The Difficult Conversation

Once you’ve identified potential performance issues, it’s time to address them directly. Schedule a private one-on-one conversation with the employee in a neutral and comfortable space. As you approach this conversation, follow this approach:

1. Preparation is key.

Don’t wing it. Gather specific examples and data to support your concerns. This could include missed deadlines with their impact, instances of poor-quality work, or observations of a lack of engagement.

2. Focus on behavior, not personality.

Frame the conversation around the employee’s actions and their impact on the work, not their personal qualities. Instead of “You seem unmotivated,” try “I’ve noticed you haven’t been contributing as much in meetings lately. Is there anything affecting your participation?”

3. Active listening is crucial.

Give the employee a chance to explain their perspective. There might be underlying reasons for their performance issues, such as a lack of training, unclear expectations, workload overload, or even personal challenges.

4. Empathy and understanding.

Addressing the issue is important, but so is empathy. Let the employees know you’re there to support them in improving. Phrases like “I want to understand what’s going on” or “How can I help you be successful in this role?” show your willingness to work together towards a solution.

5. Focus on solutions, not blame.

The goal is to find solutions, not assign blame. Use “I” statements to express concerns (“I’m concerned about the recent missed deadlines on X project”) and then work collaboratively with the employee to develop an action plan for improvement.

By approaching this conversation with preparation, a focus on behavior, active listening, empathy, and a solution-oriented mindset, you can create an opportunity for open communication and positive change.

Developing an Action Plan

The difficult conversation about performance is just the beginning. It’s here, through collaboration, that you and your employee build a roadmap for improvement.

Collaboration is key. This isn’t a top-down directive. Sit down with your employee and co-create an action plan that outlines specific and measurable goals for improvement. Frame the process as a joint effort, ensuring the employee feels invested and empowered in the path forward.

One way to do this is to craft SMART goals that follow the following rules:

  • Specific – Clearly define what “improvement” looks like. Instead of “Improve communication skills,” a specific goal could be “Provide concise status updates on projects via email by the end of each week.”
  • Measurable – Establish clear metrics to track progress. This could involve setting deadlines, defining quality standards, or outlining benchmarks for specific skills development.
  • Achievable – While challenging the employee is important, the goals should also be realistic and attainable. Consider the employee’s current skillset, workload, and access to resources.
  • Relevant – The goals should directly address the identified performance issues and be aligned with the employee’s role and overall team objectives.
  • Time-bound – Set deadlines for achieving each goal within the action plan, creating a sense of urgency and allowing you to track progress.

Support and Resources

Don’t leave your employees hanging. Offer any resources or support they might need to achieve their goals:

  • Training and Development – If a lack of skills is contributing to the issue, explore training opportunities or workshops to help them develop their abilities.
  • Mentorship Programs – Connecting the employee with a mentor who can provide guidance and support can be invaluable.
  • Additional Tools – Are there any specific tools or software that could help the employee improve their workflow or efficiency?

Schedule regular meetings to discuss progress, address any roadblocks, and provide ongoing encouragement. By working together on a clear action plan with defined goals, relevant support, and a commitment to ongoing communication, you’re setting the stage for your employee’s success and a positive turnaround in their performance.

Following Up & Documentation

Addressing performance issues is an ongoing process, not a one-time fix. Consistent follow-up and clear documentation are crucial for success.

One approach for following up is to schedule regular meetings with the employee to discuss progress on the action plan. These check-ins serve multiple purposes. You can track progress on goals, identify and address any roadblocks hindering their improvement, and provide encouragement to keep them motivated.

Additionally, you’ll want to maintain clear documentation regarding conversations about performance issues and the subsequent action plan serves.

This approach tackles two key functions. It creates a clear record that protects both you and the employee, outlining the timeline of events, discussions, and agreed-upon goals. And this documentation can also be a valuable reference point during future check-in meetings or performance reviews, allowing you to track the employee’s progress over time and measure the effectiveness of the plan.

Navigating performance issues with employees can feel daunting. Remember, clear communication, empathy, and a collaborative approach are key to fostering improvement.

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Brandon Osgood is a strategic communications and digital marketing professional based out of Raleigh, NC. Beyond being a passionate storyteller, Brandon is an avid classical musician with dreams of one day playing at Carnegie Hall. Interested in connecting? Email him at brosgood@outlook.com.