Tough Talk: Dealing with Problem Performers

It can be incredibly frustrating when you have a staff member who does not do what they are supposed to. Unfortunately, too many people wait until it becomes a very big problem before they address the issue with the staff member. At that point the leader is so frustrated they just want to fire the person and move on.

By following the steps below and immediately addressing any expectation that is not being met, you will save yourself frustration and your staff will be happier because they know what the clear expectation is.

Conversation 1: Clear Expectations. Make sure the person understands what is expected of them and that they are not meeting the expectation. Have them repeat what is required back to you to ensure they really understand. Be sure to explain how their actions impact the entire office.

  • Note that if there are multiple things the person is not doing, you may want to group these things into one general expectation that is not met. For example, a staff member may be spending too much time on personal work, is abrupt when responding to patients and fails to enter information into a patient chart in a timely manner. You would put all 3 of these behaviors under the expectation of delivering exceptional patient care.

  • Note, too, that your staff member may have a problem delivering on deadlines for special projects, training requests or other things. In this case, get a specific commitment from them on when they will complete their projects and explain that meeting deadlines is the expectation they are not meeting. By gaining their commitment you will have a date to hold them accountable to and you are getting their buy-in on when it will be complete based on their own perception of what might keep them from completing these things in a more timely manner.

Conversation 2: Removing Roadblocks. If you are sure the staff member understands what is required and they aren’t meeting the expectation, work with them to remove roadblocks. Explain that they are still not meeting the expectation and ask them why they are struggling. Remember that most people want to be successful. Seek their input, but also observe the employee in the behavior so you can identify other reasons they are not meeting your expectations. Then help them remove whatever roadblocks are stopping them and gain a new commitment.

Conversation 3: Tough Talk. If they are still not meeting the expectation, now is the time to have a tough conversation. Be sure you get the following two phrases into the conversation: “You are not meeting expectations.” and “If you continue to fail to meet these expectations, you are facing written corrective action and termination.” Take time to write out your thoughts before the conversation - this will ensure you are able to make your points even if faced with someone who is defensive or not accountable.

  • Note: 95% of all behaviors will be corrected after this conversation if you get those key phrases in. For some reason, this is when people really “hear” the message and understand that they could actually lose their job.

Conversation 4: Written Corrective Action (optional - you can skip to conversation 5 if you like, but be consistent with everyone as you go through this process). If they are still not meeting the expectation and you have truly done everything you can as a leader to help them, now is the time for written corrective action. Write out the expectation, examples of how they have failed to meet it and what they need to change. Make sure they understand that they are very close to being terminated. Make a copy of the form for the employee and sit down when you have plenty of time to read it together – read it aloud to them, have the conversation and let the employee have a copy of the form.

Conversation 5: Termination or Probation. Next up is termination or a probationary period. If they still aren’t meeting your expectation, now you can terminate them knowing you did everything to prepare them for this step. If they have turned it around, let them know they have done a good job and will have a probationary period of 6 months. During this time if they fall back and start not meeting the expectation again, they will be terminated without following the process outlined above.

Some Final Thoughts on Corrective Action and Terminating someone

  • Some people may think this approach is a little too soft or gives someone too many chances. They may be right, but this process helps make sure there is no room for misunderstanding and I have never lost sleep after terminating someone because I knew they were not surprised by it and I knew they had every last possible chance to change their behavior.

  • If you have Conversation 1 every time you see someone doesn’t meet an expectation, you will see that you rarely even have to get to conversation 2. People want to do a good job and leaders oftentimes fail to articulate what exactly that means.

  • You can see why it is so important to correct behaviors right away. This can be a long process.

  • It’s ok to have a candid conversation and ask the person why they aren’t turning things around. You can ask them if they are happy or if they want some time off to look for another position. Sometimes this can make both people in the situation feel a little better about how things are going.

  • Use the time as you go through this process to think about what you need in the next person who fills the shoes. Don’t put yourself in a position to be understaffed.

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