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How to break bad news about performance – and turn it positive

Breaking bad news to employees
Managed correctly, breaking bad news shouldn’t impact staff enthusiasm.

How do you break bad news to staff without demotivating them?

We can’t always be on top of our game. Whether it’s tiredness, illness or confusion over business strategy, there are plenty of reasons why we miss targets or make errors with our work.

The odd setback is natural. Usually, all you need is a break from a computer screen, advice from a colleague or some extra training.

But what if a member of staff is continuously underperforming? The employee might fit in well with your company culture, but if they’re damaging business productivity and profits, you need to take action.

Be direct, but friendly with staff

Giving bad news to someone isn’t easy. It’s important to be open, honest and encouraging, so you can get your message across without demotivating them and making matters worse.

Natasha Bartlett-Twivey is the owner of Buckinghamshire-based luxury artificial flowers company Ferris Heart Sloane. According to Bartlett-Twivey, the best way to break bad news to struggling staff is to be direct but personable.

“If it’s at a performance review, then it’s best to let the employee lead the chat. You can prompt them with questions about how they’re feeling or how they’re finding work,” she said. “It helps to have a good relationship with your staff members because they’ll feel more comfortable talking about any issues. You really don’t want to be blunt about problems you’ve noticed.”

From these conversations, Bartlett-Twivey said, you can find the root of the problem and a strategy to combat it.

“Perhaps there’s a question over whether the person is working in the right department or in the right role. Is this still the best job for them, or would something else fit better? From there, you can create new opportunities, like a trial move to another part of the business. Retention is crucial in business, so you need to try and keep staff by any means possible.”

Take personal concerns into consideration

Business owners also need to look at whether personal concerns are affecting “out of character” poor performance.

“There might be an ill relative in the family or they might be worried about money,” Bartlett-Twivey said.

“You’re trying to get the situation right and it’s counter-productive to devalue the employee. I want to know that they’re happy at work, which will improve their performance, especially if they’re dealing with last-minute orders from clients.”

Don’t wait to break bad news

If there’s an issue with staff, business owners shouldn’t wait for performance reviews to address them.

Break bad news - Natasha Bartlett-Twivey
Bartlett-Twivey stresses the need to deal with issues quickly.

“Our staff include florists, delivery staff, and people who work on garlands and other projects. We have a young member of staff who is new to the world of work. Sometimes, I’ll see them watching something on their phone when they should be working,” Bartlett-Twivey said.

“I want to retain the employee, but I need to tell them that watching a phone and working isn’t compatible. For a millennial, that can be a bit of an alien concept.

“So instead of having a blanket ban, I’ll sit them down for a few minutes and explain that I’ll allow them to listen to music on the phone, but not be glued to the screen.”

Build a system of regular feedback

Sue Andrews was recently appointed as business & HR consultant at Pontyclun-based KIS Finance. She agrees that being proactive with people management is vital to nip any problems in the bud.

“You need to bring in a system of regular feedback and reviews. It helps to avoid any surprises and means you don’t store up bad news until an annual appraisal,” she said.

“It’s important to give regular, bimonthly or quarterly feedback to staff because then it becomes the norm. That way, staff expect to receive positive and negative comments on their performance. You could even carry out informal weekly catchups, where you simply ask the employee: ‘How are you doing?’”

Make employees feel valued

If you need to address any issues, then it’s crucial to make the employee feel valued, rather than out on a limb.

“Deal with the issue as close to when it happened as possible. It’s good to acknowledge the issue in the moment and then decide that you’ll reflect and talk about it the next day,” Andrews said.

“If you wait, people tend to worry and get demotivated. It’s easy for something small to get bigger, and you give employees the incentive to hide problems or push them under the carpet.

“When you discuss the problem, be supportive but clear. There’s nothing worse than being so cautious in your approach that the employee doesn’t get the message. You might be trying to spare their feelings, but this can make the problem worse.”

Make sure job role expectations are clear

According to Andrews, if you have to break bad news then it’s best to start the conversation with some positive comments.

“Make the discussion a two-way street. Ask the employee how they feel they’re performing, and if they are aware of their shortcomings. If they know there are areas they are struggling with, then this gives you a way into the discussion. If they think it’s all going fine, then you need to bring the discussion around to the areas where they aren’t performing satisfactorily,” she said.

How do you communicate with staff to update them on company progress?

A combination of regular face-to-face, group and digital communication

Monthly all-hands progress meeting

I send out a quarterly email

I don’t do this

“Also have clear guidelines on what your expectations are. Do you have a clear job description in place for the individual? If so, this can be the starting point for your discussion. If not, then you need to begin by setting out the requirements and expectations of the role.”

Business owners need to get to the source of the issue quickly and identify whether more training is needed or if the work attitude is lacking.

“Ask for their suggestions and solutions. Could they benefit from working alongside an experienced member of staff?” Andrews said.

“You can’t just tell them that they’re not up to standard – you need to work with them to help them improve. That way, you’re not blaming them for underperforming and expecting them to improve without help.”

Want to learn more about dealing with difficult staff members? Check out Be the Business’ articles on management behaviours.

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