As a manager or a business owner you inevitably need to manage poor performance in your business. The fundamentals of achieving this are simple and yet very powerful.

If you are a person who avoids the hard conversations and puts off the engagement with an under-performing staff member then the cost to yourself is probably higher than you would think.


Early in my career as a business owner I would often take the decision to do nothing about problems on the basis that they would somehow sort themselves out. In truth the prospect of a difficult conversation was paralysing as I dealt with the fear of not being liked.


Someone once said to me that this issue could be answered by a simple question all employers and managers should face: What’s more important? To be liked or to be respected? Ask yourself that question first and the need to have that hard conversation with a poor performing employee should be clear.


After all, what you don’t challenge in the poor performance of your employees, you have actually approved.


That makes it your fault rather than your employee, who was never actually given an opportunity to realise that their performance is not up to scratch and then only became aware when your frustration levels boil over and you say something you really shouldn’t have said!


Here’s some quick tips of what to do or what to avoid to help you manage the poor performers in your workplace.

Don’t deal with a performance issue when you are emotional


At the time an employee does something they shouldn’t, often your emotions are immediately engaged and you react. You may be tempted to say or do things which you don’t need to say or do. I have dealt with individuals who have thrived on their “control” of others by deliberately communicating in words or in writing (usually by e-mail) in a manner which is intentionally critical, rude or demeaning.


When your blood is boiling it is difficult to avoid a confrontation which is inappropriate and causes you to have to face legal problems from your actions or words!

I know that disengaging the emotion may be easier said than done; however it is rule number 1 when you need to deal with any issue with an employee. So if you are a business owner or people manager, it’s an art you need to learn. You need to learn the art of Emotional Intelligence in dealing with difficult issues.
Here is what to do:

Create some Distance
In order to help you disengage your emotions, put a little distance, both time and physical distance between you and the incident. This will help to keep things less emotionally charged and reactive.
I am talking about a day or two rather than weeks when the issue is so distant that a conversation with the employee is largely irrelevant.

You need just enough time to put things into perspective as this will help you to deal more effectively with the issue. Distance allows us to ‘see’ things more clearly.

If the matter is one where you are dealing with a complaint and you are under pressure to act immediately by an employee who is demanding immediate action, remember that your obligation is to resolve a matter but the time you take to do that is your decision rather than someone else’s!

So in circumstances where you need the time, you can respond by asking: “Is it ok if I get back to you about this issue” “Can we meet at a particular time to discuss this?”

This way the matter is not ignored or forgotten but you have given yourself time to get over the initial reaction you may have had.

Get Some Perspective


As human beings we tend to run problems through our mind over and over and this often sparks the same emotions so you have to break that cycle. I normally achieve this by doing something good for me that gives me that sense of balance in my life. I usually swim but you can just as easily do something that works for you (E.g. massage, meditation, walk, music, exercise, time in nature).

Another thing I do is seek counsel with a person who is a mentor that can offer wisdom and perspective and this should be someone you trust. If you have a good contact who is a manager or employer who you respect highly then this feedback is invaluable to find some perspective about the way to deal with a problem.

How to Conduct the Meeting


Always speak to the employee in private and with dignity. The old adage of treating others as you would like to be treated holds true in these circumstances. If you are concerned you may become reactive, imagine if the person was someone dear to you who is speaking to their boss and imagine how you would you like them to be treated.

Every person is entitled to be treated with respect; even when they don’t treat you that way.

The law requires you to deal with an issue sensitively and effectively. Remember that while you may be holding an employee to account, you may also be held to account for the manner of your approach in dealing with an issue.

If you speak with your employee in a way that allows the employee to preserve their self-respect and dignity; they will appreciate you for it. Imagine that you will have to account to others for your words, manner and actions in a court of law.

Be Clear About the Issue and your Expectations


There is a legal concept that is based on the requirement for procedural fairness which is sometimes called “natural justice”.
When you speak to an employee about a performance issue it is your obligation to be very specific.

A good way to do this is to always follow the following steps:

  1. Identify the issue specifically. (i.e. This meeting is to discuss your performance in relation to adhering to our standard working hours between 8.30am and 5pm.
  2. Pause and allow a response to the issue and listen hard to what is being said but always stick to the following steps and don’t be tempted to enter into a discussion about the reasons that may be offered as “excuses” for the poor performance. Simply acknowledge them and move forwards!
  3. Refer to the source document or policy where the expectation was agreed to. “In your employment contract/performance agreement/or attendance policy, it states that we expect you to be in the office by 8.30am each morning”.
    Pause and allow a response with the same intent listening.
  4. Site specific examples of the poor performance and don’t be tempted to generalise. i.e. “On Tuesday last week and the previous Thursday you arrived in the office over half an hour later than the time you agreed to start work when we employed you. On other occasions, which I have documented in the last month you were at least 10 minutes late on 12 occasions”.
    Pause and allow a response
  5. Identify the problem from the business perspective. The reason that we need you to start work at 8.30am is that …… (specify what job needs doing or the other staff who may be impacted by the late arrival of the employee)

Pause and listen.

How to Measure the Success of the Process


By this time you will know from the responses you are hearing if the employee is going to take personal responsibility for their poor performance. If they continue to argue or to make excuses or blame others, then in my experience you will always need to manage that particular individual to hold them accountable for their ongoing performance.

With the best people comes the trait of taking personal responsibility for their actions. If the responses you hear acknowledge the poor performance and contain assurances to perform better, then rest assured, your ongoing involvement will be easier.

After all you want willing volunteers to meet the obligations of their employment rather than reluctant conscripts!

Follow Up


It is imperative that after the work you did in planning the meeting and going through this difficult conversation, that you maximise the benefit of this by arranging a follow up to review the ongoing performance after a set period of time.

An example would be to set another specific date to review the performance, to give the employee the opportunity to improve their performance.

For an employee who clearly doesn’t respond to the issue, this would also represent the opportunity to go down the disciplinary path and to issue a written warning in the event the performance remains unsatisfactory.



By carefully following these steps you can genuinely minimise the pain to yourself and the risk to your business.

If the process threatens to go off track or you are unable to make any headway with a particularly difficult individual then you should seek legal advice before sailing into unchartered waters!

Bruce Havilah

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