How to deal with a difficult performance review

No-one likes having to give an employee difficult feedback, but there are times when issues just can’t be ignored.

If performance has dipped, serious mistakes are being made or there are problems around attitude and behaviour, its important to tackle it head on. If people don’t get feedback nothing will change – and it could potentially have a knock-on effect on morale and productivity in the rest of the team.

Line managers often need support with conducting these more challenging appraisals. They are concerned the individual may get angry or upset – or that they may lay themselves open to accusations of bullying or discrimination.

Two employees talking over coffee

So if, as an HR professional, you find yourself having to give difficult feedback yourself, or needing to coach managers through the process, what are the key issues you need to consider?

1. Be prepared

It’s advisable to prepare for any performance-related conversation – but perhaps even more so if you are anticipating that it may be difficult. Think carefully about what you want to say and how you will ensure the message gets across. . Make sure you are going into the conversation armed with concrete examples of exactly where or how the person has gone wrong (i.e. I notice that last week there were three occasions when you didn’t respond to clients within the agreed two-day timeframe) rather than vague statements (i.e. you aren’t quick enough to respond to clients). Practising some possible scenarios in advance of the conversation can help to build your confidence.

2. Develop insight

If you are going to give negative feedback you need to make sure you have the full picture and are being absolutely fair. Base your comments on what you have observed and know to be true, rather than what other people may have told you. If appropriate, it can be really helpful to talk to other parties to get their perspective, but bear in mind they may have their own agenda. Check you are giving feedback based on people’s performance rather than on their personality. We would all prefer to be surrounded by people we like and respect, and who go about things the same way we do. The reality, however, is that there will always be people in the workplace who wind us up, push all the wrong buttons and have an approach which is vastly different to our own. Make sure you are not falling into the trap of giving negative feedback to someone simply because you don’t like them.

3. Create the right environment

Make sure the surroundings are conducive to an open, honest – and most importantly, private conversation. Allow enough time for a proper dialogue, where the individual can also have their say, to take place. If it all feels rushed, the employee could end up feeling resentful and as if they haven’t been listened to. Think about your body language and the way you phrase questions or statements. If possible, start with a positive and offer your comments calmly and objectively, rather than in a judgemental, accusatory manner. This will make it much less likely that you’ll find yourself descending into an unnecessarily heated conversation.

4. Prepare to deal with emotions

Emotions can often become heightened in a difficult performance conversation. Negative feedback can, after all, be difficult to hear and it is quite possible the individual on the receiving end may refuse to accept what you are telling them or may even walk out. Think about how you will react if someone does burst into tears, lose their temper or refuse to talk. What might you do to reframe the situation and move forward positively? Consider your own emotional response too. If you are aware that you are someone who is quick to temper, for example, how will you make sure you keep your emotions under control so as not to escalate the situation. If the conversation does become overly heated or emotional, make sure you make some notes immediately after the meeting, so that if there is any comeback from the employee, you have a record of what has been said.

5. Be ready for the unexpected

Be prepared for the appraisal not to turn out quite how you had planned. Sometimes you might find yourself ambushed, with the individual springing something on you that you weren’t expecting. “Why didn’t I get promoted over Fred/get the same rise as Sally,” for example, or “Why am I the only person in the team who hasn’t been allowed to travel/go on a training programme.” Personal issues that you weren’t aware of may also come up during a performance discussion. There are often underlying issues leading to poor performance – such as bullying colleagues, illness or a relationship breakdown – which the individual may not previously have disclosed. Whatever emerges, make sure you give a reasoned response, are supportive where appropriate and are not rushed into making promises on the spot without the time to think things through.

6. Agree a plan of action

Once the feedback has been delivered, conclude the conversation with a plan of action. Work alongside the employee to set clear goals for what needs to change and how that will be achieved. People are much more likely to buy into this if they feel they have been part of the conversation. The individual does, however, need to leave the meeting being absolutely clear of what is expected – and what the consequences and next steps might be if things don’t improve. Follow up in writing, and set a timescale for regular check-ins where you can review progress. If there are issues that require further attention – an admission that the employee is suffering from stress for example – make sure they are clear that the business will be supportive and outline the next steps, whether that’s a referral to an EAP or a discussion about how working arrangements could be adjusted.

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