5 Questions to Ask Yourself When an Employee Isn't Meeting Your Expectations

In some ways, having a solid employee who just isn't cutting it is far more challenging to deal with than an employee who isn't capable at all.  With someone who can't do the job, there are clear procedures and the organization can help you get rid of the employee if things are that bad.  It's harder when the employee is generally good but not hitting the mark on a current project, or perhaps their performance has been a little less stellar lately.  The good news is that these types of situations are definitely salvageable, as long as you address them promptly.

When to use this approach:
An otherwise solid employee starts performing below expectations in a way that affects the team's success.

When not to use this approach:
An employee does something seriously wrong or seems incapable of meeting the basic requirements of the job.  Pick up the phone and call your HR department for guidance - you don't want to create a mess by trying to deal with a situation like this on your own.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. What is the problem with the employee's performance, as you see it?  That is, how would you describe what's wrong to a fellow manager?
  2. Out of everything you've identified in question 1, what are the specific performance expectations that are not being met? For example, "Lead presentations in a polished and prepared way" or "Respond to customer inquiries politely and within 1 business day" or "Support team members as needed to ensure critical team deadlines are met."  Define the behavior as clearly as you can.
  3. How is the deficiency in performance negatively affecting the work, the team, customers, or other stakeholders (including you)?  
  4. How have the performance expectations listed above been communicated to the employee, if at all?  Is it possible the employee is not clear that this is what is expected of them?
  5. If the employee were to improve one thing or change one behavior, what is the most important thing for him or her to do in the short term?  Be sure to focus as much as you can on outcome rather than roundabout ways to achieve the outcome. 

Once you've clarified these things, it's much easier to deal with the problem.  Too often, we have the vague sense that the employee could do better, but until we actually define what "better" is, it's really hard to talk with the employee about it.  We sometimes think, "maybe it's just me - I'm being too picky/anal/rigid," and we hesitate to address it.  When you clearly define how the team's success is being affected, it's no longer about you and no longer something you can let slide.  

These questions also help you identify what the real expectation is.  Managers sometimes come up with rules that dance around the problem instead of just clearly stating the expectation.  Dress codes are a great example of this.  Is what matters how closely employees adhere to the letter of the policy, or that they reflect the company's intended brand?

How to have a conversation about performance expectations with your employee

The next step is to have a conversation with the employee, using the information you've identified.  A simple guiding framework could be:

  • Situation (the context for the performance expectation) "I would like to discuss the past few client presentations you've done."
  • Behavior (what the employee has/hasn't done) "In all three meetings last month, the slides you used had outdated information and typos, and your talking points seemed unfocused and disorganized."
  • Impact (how this affects stakeholders) "Clients may interpret a poor quality presentation as a reflection of our capabilities and expertise.  The outdated sales information made it seem like Marcy has not be effective, when in fact she has had an excellent quarter."
  • Acknowledgement (support their efforts and take some responsibility yourself) "I know you really know your stuff and have a lot on your plate other than these presentations, and I haven't necessarily emphasized the importance of always being as polished as possible, especially with long-term clients with whom we're often a bit informal in our phone communications."
  • Expectation (the standard you want them to meet) "Going forward, I would like you to prepare more thoroughly for client presentations and ensure that your slides are professional and accurate, and your talking points are focused and communicated clearly."
  • Rationale (help them to see what's in it for them) "This will ensure that our clients fully understand and appreciate how capable you and the rest of the team are."
  • Input (get their ideas and buy-in)"What are your thoughts on how you can convey our capabilities to clients in a more polished way?"
  • Agreement/action plan (after discussing options)"Great.  It sounds like scheduling time to rehearse with other members of the team will help you with your talking points and also catch any possible errors in the slides.  Let's try that for the next two presentations and then check in to discuss how it's working."

This model might be a little more structured than you need for your situation.  If so, don't use it as written - make it your own.  However, the general idea still applies.  There is a very real possibility that the employee isn't clear about what you expect, especially if you aren't all that clear yourself.  

By clarifying for yourself first and then communicating it in a very concrete way for the employee, you give him or her a chance to be successful.  If things still don't improve, then it might be time to implement a more formal approach and possibly even involve your human resources department.  First, though, make sure you've done what you need to do as a manager.  You might be pleasantly surprised at what happens when your employees know what to do and are given leeway in how to get there!

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