How to have tough conversation with employee whose performance has dropped

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DEAR READERS: Anyone who manages a team knows that dealing with employee performance issues can be a very stressful, albeit necessary, part of the job. One of the most common sticky situations for a manager is an employee whose performance suddenly falls off substantially. Nothing has radically changed in the office environment, which means the manager is left trying to figure out why. With privacy laws and sensitivity concerns so prevalent today, what is appropriate to ask and what kinds of questions should a manager steer clear of when trying to get to the bottom of a performance issue?

Talk it out, and do that right away, the career experts I reached out to say.

"Talk to the employee as soon as possible before it can turn into a bigger performance problem," says Robert Kelley, professor of management at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. "Tell the employee that you've noticed that she or he is not performing at the usual high or good level. Ask the employee if there is anything in particular that is impacting performance and if there is anything you can do to help."

"Any good manager should take the time to fully understand the reasoning behind performance falling off significantly," echoes Matthew W. Burr, human resources consultant at Burr Consulting. "Do not be afraid to have a direct conversation with the employee, without assuming anything. It's worth taking the time to understand the root cause and make decisions after that."

It is also important to remain calm and caring during what is likely to be a difficult conversation.

"Be prepared with specific examples and facts, not just emotional rants," Burr says.

And what should you ask and what should you steer clear of to make sure you don't put yourself or your company at risk?

According to Kelley, employee law is dictated by the states. Title VII laws are the exception; they apply nationwide, he notes.

In case you need a primer: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. It generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state and local governments.

"So, managers need to ask the general counsel or HR department for guidance on what privacy laws exist that can limit the questions to be asked," Kelley says. "The taboo topics will vary from state to state. In general, stay away from any questions which might be perceived as discriminating against any protected class."

"Avoid anything related to a disability, reasonable accommodations or family issues. This information might work its way out during the conversation, but it should be a direct conversation about work performance with specific information," says Burr. Areas to avoid discussing, he says include legal, disability, paid family leave and anything covered under Title VII.

Keeping a record of what you've discussed is also imperative.

"Document the conversation and any relevant information," Burr advises.

Finally, you'll need to cover how to move forward in a productive way.

"Discuss a plan for how to get the performance back to the expected level," Kelley says.

(Kathleen Furore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has covered personal finance and other business-related topics for a variety of trade and consumer publications. You can email her your career questions at

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