You’ve probably heard that an employer will likely spend less money trying to improve an employee’s performance than it would firing the worker and hiring someone new. Indeed, this generally does hold true, unless the staff member in question could put your organization at legal risk or single-handedly undermine its financial stability.
So, how can you pull struggling employees back from the brink of potential departure and place them back in the fold of productive workers? Upskill your supervisors to use constructive feedback in a timely and appropriate manner.
Assess the situation
Employers often get into trouble when supervisors “fly off the handle” and lay into struggling employees before knowing all the details involved. Train supervisors to take a step back when a situation involving substandard performance arises and assess the matter at hand — assuming there’s not an immediate safety risk, of course. Ideally, they should have a set of preestablished performance metrics for each employee to use as a guide. Metrics can show, definitively, whether and how the subject is falling short of expectations.
From there, supervisors should set up one-on-one discussions with struggling employees to discuss the issues. It’s often a good idea to start out with some positivity. The supervisor might point out that the organization values the person as a team member and remains confident in the skills and, in some cases, experience that the individual brings to the table. This will typically make troubled employees more receptive to constructive criticism.
One word of warning: Beware of the “compliment sandwich.” This occurs when supervisors try to slip a critique between two positives. Compliment sandwiches can send a mixed, confusing message and undermine the affirmative effect of the compliments. After prefacing the discussion with positivity, supervisors should clarify that the topic of conversation is indeed performance improvement.
Lay out clear objectives
As it’s usually counterproductive to let issues fester, supervisors need to address demonstrable weaknesses in performance at the earliest appropriate opportunity. But employees are more likely to improve if supervisors don’t broach the topic without concrete performance improvement steps in hand. Train supervisors to create clear, actionable items before reaching out to employees.
As mentioned, supervisors should ideally provide constructive criticism in face-to-face meetings, whether in-person or virtual, or at the very least on a phone call. In today’s text-happy world, some may be inclined to transmit feedback via text, instant messaging or email. For relatively minor matters or a “heads-up,” doing so is sometimes acceptable.
However, it’s generally best to address serious issues in the context of an actual conversation, where tone of voice plays a role and struggling employees can tell their sides of the story. By now, most of us have been involved in a “back-and-forth” via text, instant messaging or email that goes nowhere fast and leaves both parties feeling misunderstood and resentful.
In the most serious cases, your organization may need to develop written performance improvement plans — commonly known as a “PIPs” — to get troubled employees back on track. But that’s a subject for another article. By and large, if you invest a reasonable amount of money and time into honing your supervisors’ skills, you’ll likely be able to resolve most problems and retain a substantial percentage of your employees.