How to structure initial poor performance conversations

Feb 14, 2022 | Good Management

If you have an employee who is not performing as you would like them to, at some point you’ll need to initiate a conversation about the problems. Many managers find this difficult, so having a structure to follow can be useful.

When to hold the discussion

Before considering the structure of the discussion, it is worth stating that performance conversations need to take place sooner rather than later, really once you become aware that performance levels are dropping.  Performance concerns rarely go away by themselves, so raising it early can help avoid an escalation in poor performance and gives the employee the earliest opportunity to try and improve, with any identified support required. The aim of the conversation should always be to achieve improvement, and this is more likely to happen the sooner you raise it.

Preparation is key

Further, make sure you do your homework – has the employee got a job description, have they been set objectives and goals and have they been given any required training?  Assuming these are in place and a conversation still needs to happen, then some preparation is wise: be clear about what it is you want to say, examples you will use and set aside the time for an uninterrupted discussion.

Conversation structure

Using the following structure can help facilitate early performance conversations:

  1. Advise the employee of your concern – Let the employee know what it is about their performance that is giving cause for concern. Your preparation will help you articulate and summarise the areas you wish to discuss. Be specific rather than vague, to make absolutely sure your employee understands where they are falling short.
  2. Share your observations – Sharing what you have observed will help keep the language neutral and uncombative. For example, if the issue is the employee is not making a contribution at meetings you can frame it in the following way, “I have noticed at team meetings you don’t really contribute to the conversation and put forward suggestions”. Contrast this with “Why don’t you make any contribution at our team meetings?” The latter is almost accusatory in tone and may well result in the employee being defensive or just shutting down the conversation.
  3. Describe the impact – It is always useful to help an employee understand the impact of their poor performance. Using the example above, the impact might be that other team members are unable to get a sense of the employee’s viewpoint on certain issues, or perhaps they are expecting the employee’s input to help solve an issue.  Whatever the impact is, it is really useful to explain this to the employee so they get a clear understanding of how their performance affects others.
  4. Identify the cause – Open up the conversation to understand the reasons behind the unsatisfactory performance. Using the example in 2. you might want to follow up with “do you agree with this and is there any reason behind the lack of contribution?”. As well as specific reasons for the unsatisfactory performance in the areas you have identified, it’s useful here to also give the employee the opportunity to say whether there is anything happening that may be impacting their work. Any health or personal issues raised can then be taken into account.
  5. Advise on the expected standards – Be clear about what it is you expect. So, using the same scenario explain what you want to see from all team members and why.
  6. Explore possible solutions – Having hopefully identified the cause and been clear on the expected standards, the next step is to move the conversation on to look at potential solutions. As the manager, it is important to also understand the role you might play here, so ask them if they need any support from you.  For example, if the underlying cause is a lack of confidence, then consider how you might encourage and support the employee to make a contribution. Extra training may be a potential solution; however, it is always useful to explore with the employee how they feel this will help them – especially if they request any additional training.  Agree an action plan if appropriate.
  7. Schedule a review – Ensure you schedule a review in the near future to discuss progress and whether the identified solutions are working.

Following a structure as described above will help you keep conversations about poor performance on track, positive and solution based.


If you need any advice when structuring a poor performance discussion or the poor performance process, please do get in touch.