Question: What do I do if during a conversation about poor performance the employee starts injecting that she’s being attacked or has been harassed?
A tough conversation is exactly that – tough. For a lot of managers, tough conversations include performance discussions. A March 2016 Harvard Business Review article explained that two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Two-thirds! This means a couple of things: (1) managers don’t know how to have tough conversations; and (2) managers are not prepared to have tough conversations. HR can help with this!
It is a rare organization that does a great job training managers on how to manage. Most don’t have the time or resources to devote to some of the “softer” skills about how to communicate with employees. So, we send managers out into our organizations to fend for themselves, explain they should treat employees how they want to be treated, buy them a book on leadership, and hope for the best. While I wish managers knew more, here’s what I’d like them to know about tough conversations:
Plan. Prepare a script. I recommend you draft an email with some bullet points or full script of what you need to convey to the employee. If you don’t plan, it’s possible that the conversation will wander and you may miss the clear messaging you need to convey.
Consult. Consult with HR, another manager, and/or your manager. Ask them for feedback that you can use to improve your messaging or alter your wording to make the message even more clear or less emotional or harsh.
Take a beat. Yes, performance should be addressed as soon as possible, but a discussion about performance should not happen in the heat of the moment or in anger. Take a beat to breathe, plan, and consult. It’s okay and even preferred where the manager’s own emotion could hinder the discussion. Just don’t let the beat last longer than one business day.
Schedule. This is a short, in-person meeting – usually less than 15 minutes. There should not be a long list of things you need to cover. Bogging it down with other subjects reduces the importance of the poor performance part of the discussion, so performance should be the only topic of the conversation from the manager’s perspective. Plus, if you add other topics, the employee may not remember them.
Anticipate. Usually, a manager knows if an employee will cry, become defensive, and/or angry. Ponder in your planning what could happen. Have tissues ready, let HR know you’re having the conversation, or plan to have someone with you if you have concerns about the employee’s reaction. Select this person carefully – s/he should not be a co-worker of the employee.
Prepare for surprise. Sometimes, a manager won’t be able to anticipate how the employee react. In the question above, if the employee starts lodging complaints, the manager needs to know how to refocus the discussion. Managers will need to hear a complaint, but then remind the employee that she’s there to talk about performance. Managers should report the complaint immediately after the meeting so HR or management can take action.
Document. Use your bullet points or script to recap with additions of how the meeting actually went. The employee does not have to sign off on the documentation but should know of the document’s existence.
I often joke that managers have the word “manage” in their job title, so they’ve got to actually manage. Most managers are great at saying “you’re doing great,” but it is those conversations where they have to confront an employee about poor performance or misconduct that trips them up. For HR, this means we coach managers through these tough conversations. Use these tips and reach out when you need help.