Confronting Employee Performance and Misconduct Issues

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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Confronting employees about their performance and misconduct requires firmness and finesse. A leader must be firm to make clear to the employee that his performance or behavior is unacceptable and must change. She must use finesse to communicate in a way that retains respect for the integrity and dignity of the employee and avoids overreactions.

In “No More Excuses for Not Managing Misbehaving Employees,” We identified some self-justifications leaders must overcome for not addressing difficult employee conduct and performance issues. If you must confront a poorly performing or behaving employee, consider these strategies for balancing firmness with finesse:

Use finesse when approaching the employee. You are delivering unwelcome news, so be thoughtful to establish the best manner, place, and time that will allow you to carefully talk through your concerns and allow the employee to receive your message in the least uncomfortable way possible. Don’t blast him off the cuff in the midst of regular business, but instead be clear of the specific purpose for which you want to meet. Don’t allow a lot of time to pass between the time of your meeting request and the time of your meeting so you won’t unnecessarily worry the employee. Also, consider a time that will allow for minimal distractions and when you will not be rushed, such as early in the day or early afternoon rather than before lunch or the end of the day.

Use firmness to state concerns based on facts and concrete observations. The delivery of difficult news often goes awry when the messenger is not clear about her concerns or makes statements that are accusatory or based on unsubstantiated claims, labels, or guesses. Keep in mind the mantra, “facts first.” Before approaching the employee, be sure you are clear about the facts on which you are making your claim about the employee’s performance or conduct. Then, present this information in a way so that the employee cannot easily refute its validity, even if he may disagree with your interpretation. Next, explain how this information leads you to conclude the employee is performing beneath expectations or behaving outside expected norms. Be sure to always deliver your message in a tone and manner that are not only firm, but calm, respectful, and professional.

Use finesse to respond to reactions and defensiveness. One reason the preceding point is so important is that it quickly gives the employee concrete information that he can begin to process while also evaluating your underlying concerns. It can, therefore, help minimize the natural defensiveness the employee may feel. The contrary approach of making accusatory statements or other claims upfront, absent facts, immediately creates defensiveness because it does not provide helpful information and can immediately lead to an argument. To help minimize reactions and further defensiveness, once you have delivered your message, be a good listener. The more you demonstrate your willingness to understand his perspective, even if you cannot fully agree, the more inclined he may be to remain calm and begin to work with you to find solutions.

Use firmness to communicate the change you expect. Just as you must be clear on the facts to support your concerns, you must be certain of the change you want to see and the potential consequences you will impose if the employee does not change. The employee is entitled to as much clarity about the change you expect as he is in understanding the performance or behavior deficit that concerns you. Without that clarity, he has no standard on which to gauge his subsequent performance or behavior, nor do you have a solid basis on which to impose future consequences. Don’t vacillate on your position. While there may be situations where the employee presents legitimate counter-information you had not previously considered that may cause you to reevaluate your expectations, it may be tempting to capitulate to the employee’s plea for reconsideration based on an emotional outburst, excessive argumentation, or other overtures to encourage you to soften your stance. If you have been thoughtful and are assured your decision is fair, objective, and consistent with practice and policy, hold firm.

Use finesse to remain unconditionally supportive of the employee and committed to his success. Upon delivering a difficult message and in the course of the employee’s efforts to meet your expectations, the employee may feel alone. You don’t have to be his friend, but should continuously affirm your belief in him and his ability to comply with expectations. While you are not required to negotiate with the employee about your expectations, you can be open to negotiating about the process he will use to fulfill them. Collaborate on a concrete, realistic plan for improvement and remain accessible for feedback and direction as the employee works to implement the plan. Finally, once he has achieved the new expectations, continue to affirm your commitment to his continued success with a clean slate as though the prior performance or behavioral deficit never occurred.

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