HOW TO: Have a Performance Conversation With An Employee

(Editor’s Note: h/t to Bose Ogundiyun, PHR for the idea of this post.)

You’ve got an employee who isn’t contributing their fair share. You know you need to address it. The rest of the team can tell this employee is a poor performer. If you don’t do something, your credibility will suffer. But what do you say?

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The purpose of conversations like this isn’t to punish the employee. It’s to change their performance. That’s why you don’t want to delay the conversation. The longer you wait; the harder the conversation. Because the employee will think their behavior is acceptable since no one addressed it.

Here’s an outline you can use as you think about the conversation you want to have with the employee.

  1. Let the employee know your concern. Don’t minimize the importance of this conversation by spending a huge amount of time talking about the latest episode of The Voice and a little on the topic of performance. This is an important matter and should be treated that way.
  2. Share what you have observed. Offer specifics about actual behaviors you’ve witnessed. If someone else witnessed the behaviors, try to have that person there. Employees don’t like the line “someone told me you did this…” If you’re trying to correct behavior, be able to specifically discuss behavior.
  3. Explain how their behavior impacts the team. Employees might not realize how their behavior negatively impacts the organization or the team. It’s important to draw a connection between their behavior and impact to the company. If negative impact can’t be explained, then an employee will question why they need to change their behavior.
  4. Tell them the expected behavior. It’s possible an employee will not know what they should be doing. Come to the discussion prepared to explain what the acceptable standard is and how an employee can achieve the standard.
  5. Solicit solutions from the employee on how to fix the situation. This is so important! Let the employee tell you what they’re going to do to fix the situation. It creates buy-in. If you tell an employee what to do, they haven’t bought into it. Give the employee time to think about possible solutions.
  6. Convey the consequences. Let the employee know what will happen if the situation is not resolved. You’ll notice I haven’t written one word about disciplinary action. Sometimes the consequence is an employee will not be eligible for a transfer. Or they will not be able to participate in flex time. Maybe the next step is discipline. Regardless, make sure the employee is aware of what happens if the matter isn’t resolved.
  7. Agree upon a follow-up date. No news is good news is not a management philosophy. After the employee agrees to work toward improving their performance, set a follow-up date to discuss progress.
  8. Express your confidence. Since the goal of this conversation is to improve performance, don’t be afraid to tell an employee you’re confident they can correct the situation.

None of us likes to have a negative performance conversation. I always try to remember the purpose – it’s to help an employee change their behavior. If the conversation stays focused on helping the employee be successful then hopefully it never escalates to disciplinary action.

Performance conversations can be a bit scary – both for the person giving them and the person receiving the feedback. Take time to plan out your thoughts. Think of the different responses that could arise and how you would answer them. Preparation will make the conversation easier.

Image courtesy of HR Bartender


  1. Catie Farrow says

    Hey Sharlyn – Thanks so much for your insight on employee performance conversations! I especially enjoy the advice about behavior impacting the team – I always find that the best performance conversations are not only timely and specific, but are focused on business objectives and employees’ roles in creating value for the company.

    On the other side of the coin, I think it’s worth mentioning that the best way to change employee behavior is through positive reinforcement. That is, timely and specific recognition for a job well done (i.e. driving business results) will have the greatest impact on employee performance. As my company always says, “What gets recognized gets repeated.”

    Thanks again! Looking forward to learning more about workplace performance. :)


  2. says

    Hi Catie. My apologies for not responding sooner. I agree – positive reinforcement is important.

    Using the example above: If a manager needs to have a performance coaching conversation with an employee, they should always follow-up. Even if the employee is doing great. It’s an opportunity to let the employee know they’re meeting the performance standard. No news is good news isn’t the way to handle it.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. says

    Thanks for a well written, easy to follow guide for a VERY important issue. Conversations about poor performance MUST take place for the employee to have the chance to improve! I’ve coached dozens of managers over the past few years, encouraging them to do much of what you’ve listed here. But, with this article, you’ve developed an excellent template for managers to use to help ensure successful, although difficult, performance conversations with their people. I’ll keep a copy for my own toolkit!

  4. Julia West says

    This article is well written and insightful. Another way to look at these performance conversations is as “coaching”. The term “coach” comes from a horse drawn carriage and it’s meant to be a way to get a person from one place to another. If you look at it this way, the purpose of performance coaching is simply to bring the employee from one behavior to another. Not all coaching conversations need to be scary and I beleive that most employees really want to do well in their job. If you provide them with the means to get there, they will be grateful.

    Thanks for a great article!