The best time for bad news is right now

Article by Charles Watson – Workplace relations and compliance specialist

One of the most difficult things to undertake when leading people is needing to discuss poor performance or unacceptable conduct. Harder still is holding a ‘show cause’ meeting that is likely to result in the termination of a worker’s employment. You have to deal with a little discomfort and an increase in heart rate, but you have no choice. The worker may be an ingratiated high performer in their role but if you don’t “do whatcha gotta do” …the losses will be bigger than you imagine.

If a high performing worker is allowed to get away with inappropriate behaviour or poor performance in their role, the rest of the team sees that behaviour being condoned. Little by little everyone else starts to have negative reactions or ‘act up’ a little and then it becomes a slippery slope. The higher in the pecking order the recalcitrant worker is, the worse the effect. Before you know it, the company has significant cultural issues that are affecting the bottom line. Talent will walk and otherwise good heads will have to roll to be replaced by untainted workers. All because you didn’t deal with the original issue in a timely manner. 

There are several simple steps I use that make it a little easier. While simple does not necessarily mean easy, preparation is the key. Giving bad news of any kind to a worker is never easy, even if you absolutely detest the particular individual and everything they do. You’re going to feel bad before and after, especially if you are close to the individual, but you are in your role because it is believed you can manage these issues.  Don’t let anyone prove otherwise.

1. Background

Confirm the worker is underperforming or their conduct is unacceptable? Do you have evidence or is it just an opinion? Have you given the worker the support and resources they need to perform to required standards? If need be you may need to undertake an appropriate investigation to establish the underperformance or conduct. I have seen managers take allegations as gospel and have egg on their face when it turns out to be false.

2. Purpose

Be clear on what you want from the meeting. 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 to justify why should not be terminated?

3. Prepare yourself

Clear your head beforehand. 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. Attempt to stay positive throughout the meeting, and gaffe tape a permanent smile on your face if that helps. Remember it is unlikely the worker is completely oblivious that such a meeting was on its way.

4. Clarity

Start with a clear message that the worker is not performing to the expected standard, or that their behaviour is unacceptable and the worker needs to explain why their employment should not be terminated. Simply and clearly state the unacceptable underperformance or conduct issue. Leave extraneous or personalised elements out, but refer to the evidence where necessary.

5. Choreology

Have the steps and the questions written down if need be. It’s ok. If aircraft pilots can use checklists, then so can you. Thank the worker for their involvement in the meeting and let them know you want them to succeed. Alternatively, if the situation cannot be rescued and it’s time for them to go, take 5 minutes to consider what you have heard and make the decision then, not before.

If you have no other option but to terminate the worker, start with the phrase “Having considered everything, we have no other option but to terminate your employment with us”.  After saying that, the worker usually stops listening and there is not much else to say anyway.

Don’t rush it, but realistically if you have your ducks in a row already this step and the previous one should be covered in under twenty minutes.

6. Keep records

Write notes of the meeting in case you need to refer to them later. If the worker is staying, define the specific actions they must undertake to improve and a timeline for that improvement. Confirm the meeting purpose and outcome in writing and give a copy of the letter to the worker. If you’ve terminated a worker send them a confirming letter in the mail or keep them sweating in an antechamber until you’ve drafted it and after making the decision (never before making it!!).

7. Roll credits

You still have all your fingers and toes. Now go and have a cup of tea. Whiskey? No, this is not an episode of Mad men. 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 there is a chance you are becoming a workplace psychopath…. which is another species you don’t want in your business.

If you love greater specificity, and if it helps, turn these broad steps into 100 smaller ones. However you do it, as a manager you will at some time have to be prepared to kill your darlings, or at least have a difficult discussion with a worker. Going through the mental Tai Chi beforehand will see you through it and for the best overall results.

Article by Charles Watson

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