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MANAGING STAFF

How to deliver bad news to 3 kinds of underperforming employees

The talk of management isn’t easy. Here are three especially difficult conversations to be prepared for: the “poor performance” discussion, the “no-raise-for-you” discussion, and the “we’re-having-layoffs” discussion.

Business consultant, corporate trainer, and psychotherapist Linnda Durre, Phd, of Winter Park, FL, outlines what to say, and what not to say, to get the message across and at the same time keep the peace, protect morale—and ensure safety.

1 The poor performance talk

First is the conversation about a staffer’s poor performance.

What the manager has to do at this point, Durre says, is to improve the performance and at the same time keep the staffer’s morale up. To do that, follow two rules.

The first rule is to be sensitive. Don’t be mean, don’t be cruel, don’t be cold. “Everybody has an ego and feelings,” she says. Recognize them.

Do otherwise and expect a tough payback. A hurt employee “will wait in the bushes” to sabotage or make a fool of the manager, Durre explains. And people hold long grudges, she says. It’s not uncommon for an employee to wait years to get back at a manager who was mean or nasty.

The second rule is be specific. It’s not enough to say only that the performance isn’t up to standard. Explain what isn’t up to standard and what it should be and how to get there.

How to say it? “Be sincere, genuine, and specific,” Durre says. A good approach is to start out with a positive statement about the value the employee brings to the office or to the clients.

Then go to the criticism, but don’t term it such, Durre says. Far better is to refer to it as feedback.

Also, don’t transition to it with the word but. “That acts like a giant negator. It cancels out all the positive words that come before it,” Durre says.

Use the word and instead. That keeps the thinking positive. She gives the example of, “I love my job and it’s stressful.” Both of those elements are true, and there’s no negative implication given.

End the conversation on a positive note. Say that the manager wants to see the poor performance corrected because the staffer is a valued employee.

Durre gives this example:

Staffer A, I always appreciate your teamwork and your positive attitude.

What I experience is that your reports are late, and that has a domino effect in your department. You do the initial work that everybody depends on, so when you get behind, the others get behind as well.

If you can’t make the deadlines, I will have to discuss it with the lawyers. I would rather not do that. I am hoping you will make changes in your time management so you can get your work done on time.

Thank you so much, Staffer A.

Have specific examples ready, and bring them out if the staffer doesn’t understand the issue.

“Many people are clueless about what they’re doing wrong,” she says. Others are in denial. They think, “I don’t do that! I’m not like that!”

So instead of saying only that reports are often late, be prepared to point to specific reports and tell how late they were.

If there’s no proof of what’s being done wrong, there’s no reason to be talking to Staffer A in the first place, she says.

What’s more, without examples, all the manager is saying is, “You are terrible.” The message that needs to be conveyed is, “You are a good person; you are just late at meeting your deadlines.”

2 The no-raise-for-you talk

Next is the conversation where a staffer asks for a raise or promotion.

Whenever a manager is caught off guard, the best response is to turn the table, Durre says. In this situation, ask, “Why do you deserve a raise (or promotion)? Tell me what you have done for our office that warrants it.”

Then let the staffer do the proving.

The staffer may not be able to give any justification for the request, and if so, don’t be rude. Use the conversation to give that person what Durre refers to as “motivation, hope, and drive.” Explain how to earn the raise or promotion: “When you can do X, we can revisit this.”

On the other hand, what if the staffer can justify the request but the manager knows the firm isn’t in a position to grant it?

Don’t reject it flatly. That’s only going to generate hard feelings.

Show support for the request. Tell the staffer “I will take this under consideration. There is merit here. And I will have to check with the lawyers.”

Once again, don’t use the word but. Use and instead.

Then talk with the lawyers and come back with their decision, plus a good reason for it, plus some more support: “I would like to give you a raise, but the lawyers say that because of cutbacks, we can’t. I want you to know this applies to everyone, not just you.”

What the staffer hears is that the manager recognizes the value of the request, has gone to bat for the staffer, and has brought back the best response possible.

Durre points out that truth is essential. Hide behind an excuse that no raises are forthcoming and then give somebody else a raise, and expect to have to deal with an unhappy staffer.

3 The talk about layoffs

Then there’s the conversation where the manager has to announce that layoffs are on the horizon. Following that are the conversations with the unlucky staffers who have to leave. And with those conversations, there’s the possibility of violence, Durre says, because even the mildest-mannered employee can react strongly to being let go.

Her advice is to give at least two weeks’ notice of the possible cuts. That gives staff time to talk with their families, brush up their resumes, think about other job possibilities, accept what may take place—and calm down. Some employers don’t give any notice, she says, but people “need time to adjust to the fact that there are layoffs and that they may be the next to go.”

When the decisions are made, give the news and send the laid-off staffers immediately on their way.

Some employers approach it the other way around. Instead of giving the entire staff two weeks’ notice about the possibility of layoffs, they lay people off unannounced and tell them they can stay on the payroll for two weeks. A mistake, she says. Let a laid-off staffer continue working “and the office has a paid enemy on staff.”

Fairest is to give everybody warning, Durre says, and safest is to lay people off and immediately “escort them kindly and humanely out the door.”

As to what to say, be brief and also be as positive as possible. Compliment the staffer on a job well done. Say, “Don’t take this personally” and, “We wish we could keep you.” Point out that other people are being laid off as well.

Don’t get into the particulars of the why of it. Just say the layoffs are necessary because of the economy or lower reimbursement or whatever. Then add, “I wish this didn’t have to happen, and (once again, and instead of but) this is what we have to do.”

One question to be prepared for is the standard, “Why are you letting me go and keeping Staffer B? I do a better job than Staffer B does.”

Don’t try to answer that. Just explain that there are factors affecting the decisions that people are not aware of, and if the staffer presses, say, “These are confidential issues. We can’t disclose that information.”

Layoffs can get emotional, Durre says. “People come back with guns, they delete hard drives, they send viruses. It can get nasty.” For that reason, there are things besides the verbiage to consider.

One is timing. Don’t lay anybody off until late in the afternoon. That allows people to leave with dignity and not have to face their coworkers—and explain what’s happened—and start to get angry.

Another is to have security people in the office, she says, lest somebody “goes ballistic.”

Another is to have the final paycheck ready and include in it any accrued vacation or sick leave pay. That eliminates any suspicion or complaint of “they aren’t going to pay me.”

Collect the keys and pass cards and any other office property. Change the computer passwords and door entry codes. Escort the staffer to pick up personal belongings and don’t leave that person’s side until the door closes.

And for the manager’s safety, as well as to support the documentation, have somebody else present at the termination discussion.

Linnda Durre is author of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace,” a book on how to handle almost every type of negative personality in the office.


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