Take the Sting out of Employee Discipline

You know that feeling. The in-your-gut, sinking feeling you get before you have to deliver a performance warning to a staff member. Maybe you have an HR business partner with you, maybe you’re alone, but you know that this conversation is going to be miserable for everyone involved. It HAS to be…right?

Obviously, you know I’m going to say WRONG. (Though it would be funny if I were just like “yep, it sucks. Sorry!”)

Here’s the thing: Most of us, when delivering negative performance feedback to an employee, genuinely want that employee to improve. We want our people to succeed and we want to give them the tools to do so. These are conversations with people who have potential, have succeeded in the past but backslid, or whom you hired before finding out that they’re a little short on skills. Unfortunately, we know that the employee is going to see this first conversation as Step 1 on the road to being fired, and they’ll react by either walking on eggshells for months or dusting off their resume.

Nobody’s getting fired today.

Nobody’s getting fired today.

So, how do we, with all of our good intentions, use this opportunity to create a partnership with our employees? How do we avoid crushing their spirits when all we want to do is motivate? I’m so glad you asked!

  1. Start with the result you want. This means actually beginning the conversation with something like “I really want our team to crush these sales goals this year.” Notice you are NOT starting with “We need to have a talk about your performance.” This step begins even before the meeting—your invitation to meet should be titled something like “Planning Meeting” or “Strategy Session”

  2. Talk about some successes your team has had. Keeping that positivity going, your first mention of performance should be a good one. What did your employee do to contribute to the team this year? This can be as simple as noting a personality trait, like “You’ve really been patient in answering all those questions from the analysts.”

  3. Bring the conversation around to supporting your employee. You still haven’t said “Here’s where you’re falling short.” Here’s where you say “I feel pretty clear on how Joe and Sheila are planning to reach their goals, but it seems like you and I could spend some time working on your plan. For example, I notice that you spend more time away from your desk than the rest of the team, and I wonder if that’s because you need some help figuring out the most efficient way to get the info you need to complete your projects. What do you think?” Here, you’ve assumed there’s a good reason for your employee going missing from his desk and falling short on goals, and you’ve offered them space to explain what’s going on.

    (3a). If the problem is a personality issue: These are trickier, but you can use a similar strategy. Rather than your employee taking long breaks or falling short on sales goals, they’re just acting like a jerk. In this case, modify your message a bit but make sure they still start with the benefit of the doubt. “I feel like you and Joe haven’t found a groove in working together, and I wonder if the stress is causing you to react angrily when something goes wrong. I know we’re all on the same team and moving in the same direction, so how can I help you be happier at work?”

  4. Wrap it up efficiently. You’ve gotten your point across and, with luck, had a productive conversation about what your employee’s perspective and needs are. Here’s where it is important not to dwell too long—make the assumption that one meeting was enough to get your point across, and that things will improve. This first meeting is not the time to set out a 60-day timeline and hardline goals.

  5. Make a plan to check in. I know, I just said not to set a timeline. BUT. You do want to let your employee know that your interest in the subject is not going away. All it takes is a casual “Let’s have lunch next Friday to see how things are going and find out if any other ideas have bubbled up. In the meantime, let me know if you have some ideas for how I can support you.” Make the plan for sometime in the next two weeks—not a month or two out. If you don’t plan a follow-up, it’s too easy for both of you to let things slide back to where they were.

So, that’s conversation #1. Yes, you might need to go further down the road if this doesn’t spur a change, but this first conversation lays the foundation for the spirit of the process. Employees who want to improve will be on notice that a) they need to step it up and b) their manager is here to help them succeed, not waiting for them to fail.