The hard conversation: how to give constructive criticism to employees

By Charles Watson, Workforce Guardian

Criticism can be difficult to give.

Over the years of advising businesses one of the most difficult things to undertake is holding a meeting with a worker to discuss poor performance. Harder still is holding a ‘show cause’ meeting that is likely to result in the termination of a worker’s employment. Giving bad news of any kind to a worker is never easy, confrontations of any sort are always difficult.

However, when it must be done in the workplace there are several suggestions I would put to you that make it easier on yourself and your worker. Like any undertaking, keeping it simple is the best approach. While simple does not necessarily mean easy, preparation is the key. You’re going to feel bad doing this, but you must get it done.

Step one – background

Ask yourself a few questions before you go ahead. Are you sure the worker is underperforming? Do you have evidence or is it just an opinion? Have you given the worker the support and resources they need to perform? Underperformance can be caused by a failure to prepare workers for success.

Step two – purpose

Be clear on what you want from the conversation. Is this a formal procedure that will likely result in a warning or just giving the worker a ‘heads up’ that they are struggling? Is it coming up with solutions or asking why the worker should not be terminated?

Step three – prepare yourself

Go for a walk beforehand and clear your head. Brain experts hold the view that a bit of exercise before applying the grey matter is the way to go. Don’t enter such a meeting with unnecessary anxiety or anger. Stay positive throughout the meeting and remember it is unlikely the worker is completely oblivious that such a meeting was on its way.

Step four – clarity

Start with a clear message that the worker is not performing to the standard expected. Simply state what they are underperforming at and what is the expected standard. Leave extraneous elements out but refer to the evidence where necessary.

Step five – choreograph

Define the specific actions the worker is required to undertake to improve and a timeline for improvement. Thank the worker and let them know you want them to succeed. Don’t rush it, but realistically this step and the previous one should be able to be covered in under twenty minutes.

Step six – record keeping

Write notes of the meeting in case you must refer to them later. Confirm the meeting purpose and outcome in writing and give a copy of the letter to the worker.

Step seven – at the end of the day it is night time

Now go and have a cup of tea.  If the meeting didn’t go exactly as planned or you feel anxious afterwards, don’t beat yourself up. Remember, if you were to get too comfortable doing this sort of thing then you’re at risk of becoming a workplace psychopath which is another species you don’t want in your business.

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