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6 steps for holding employee performance discussions: Conquering the difficult performance talk

Lori Culler Published on 26 November 2013

When was the last time you were frustrated with an employee? Perhaps it was this morning. Perhaps it has occurred too many times with a particular employee. We are so busy on the farm, the milking can’t wait, so much to get done and there is never enough time.

Between lack of time and management’s lack of confidence in their ability, tough conversations often get avoided. Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is not easy.



When one person isn’t pulling their weight it affects the whole team. When situations go unhandled, it leads to major loss in productivity. Management spends too much time talking amongst one another about how irritated they are and yet no one talks to the culprit. The team typically will start gossiping about what is going on and management’s lack of handling. And soon your small problem becomes a farm-wide problem.

The most difficult discussions are the ones that are not so clean cut. When an employee is late four out of five days, that is an easy one. It’s more objective. It’s the lack of motivation, negative snickering, non-listening that are the sticky ones to deal with.

Over the years in human resources, I have handled hundreds of performance conversations. Here are my tried and true tips for handling those uncomfortable talks:

1. Take all of the emotion out of the discussion. Never meet with your employee when your emotions are high. Let’s say they have taken the last straw. Take a night to cool down and gather your thoughts before you open your mouth.

2. Determine what the core problem is. When there have been multiple problems and have been unaddressed far too long, the main issues become muddy. The list of wrongs can be longer than my child’s wish list for Santa. I suggest writing the issues on paper and grouping similar items. It usually can be narrowed down to one or two themes. It will be more concise for the manager to discuss and more palatable for the employee to hear.


3. Prepare notes in advance. Most managers are not born with this inherent ability to handle difficult conversations with ease. Take the time prior to the meeting to write down a few points including the main concerns, specific examples to back up your claim and future expectations. You know your employee, so be prepared to handle how they will react. I had to talk to one of our leads who was having an attitude problem toward other employees. I brought him in to discuss, and his first words were, “You don’t have to tell me, I already know what you are going to say.” I think he thought the discussion would end there. I responded, “I am sure you do know, but I would like to walk through this anyway.”

4. Set up a specific and private time to meet. Let him know when he is punching out that you would like to talk with him in your office tomorrow at 8 a.m. or grab him when he punches in to set up a time later that day. You do not need to give specifics on the topic, just an expectation that you are meeting. By setting a time and the place, it sets the tone of the meeting before first words are even spoken. Quick tip, if it is just feedback on a project or one-time mishap then a chat in the truck on the way to the field is appropriate. If it is an ongoing, more serious problem, it needs to be in a more formal setting.

5. Set future expectations. What would you like to see different? How will the employee know they are successfully on the right track? This part of the discussion is a two-way street. They need to be adding to the conversation of how they will work towards change. You need to be adding how you can assist them in their efforts.

6. Set a deadline for a follow-up. Before the meeting wraps up, a date should be set for the next meeting to check on progress. This is a key ingredient that gets missed. Because you had that conversation, the employee starts to improve their performance, but then as time goes by they can slip back into bad habits. The follow-ups are necessary until the employee is fully on the right track.

And don’t forget the positives. Do your best to tell the employee what they do well. Every situation is unique; be open and candid. Better to hold a conversation that wasn’t as smooth as you would have liked than to not hold one at all. PD



Lori Culler

AgProvise Consulting