Over the recent holiday meal, a friend described his disgruntlement (is anyone ever “gruntled”?) over a good employee being laid off while a poor employee was kept on. Certainly we don’t know the decision-making that went into it but it made him wonder, “why didn’t the guy who always screws up the orders get laid off?”

My management consultant hat magically appeared.

Lay-offs are often used to clean house. It seems logical – as long as an organization is letting people go due to lack of work or other cost-cutting reasons, why not let the lowest performers go, too? The heartburn I have with this is, most of the time the lower performers have not been told they are falling short. Then a lay-off comes and they are told, “So sorry, you know, this economy, etc etc, good luck and here’s a severance package.”

So, consultant hat tipped rakishly, I jumped on my soapbox over the Thanksgiving table and made an emphatic plea for doing the right thing. “The manager of the guy who screws up the orders is not doing HIS job. If the order-taker is falling short, he needs to be told in clear and objective terms. A plan for getting it done right needs to be crafted between them. The message of what good looks like needs to be stated by the manager. And if the employee can’t or won’t do it, he needs to be let go. NOT laid off due to the economy.”

Every day we hear about good employees losing jobs. And every day I hear about poor employees keeping jobs. All it takes is a conversation. Here’s my holiday gift to you – the recipe for having the conversation:

1. Prepare yourself with a few speaking points:
What is the topic of performance? (Customer service? Attendance? Deadlines?)
What objective examples illustrate the problem? (2 hours late 3 times this month? 4 customers complaining that their orders were incorrect?)
Why is it a concern? (Overtime is up 20% to cover you? Lost x dollars due to cancelled orders?)
What does good performance look like? (Being here ready to work by 8am every day? Achieving 99% accuracy on all orders?)

2. Meet with the employee:
First you do the talking, and then you’ll make it a two-way talk.

Say the topic of what you want to discuss rather than diving right into the detail. This will help the person follow.
Avoid long lead-ins, giving a bunch of vague praise to “soften the blow”, or other delaying tactics.
Give the examples and say why this is a concern – be specific rather than vaguely remarking “it’s important to do it right” (let the eye rolling begin).
Then right away state what good looks like.

Example: “Pete, I want to talk about your order management. In the past two weeks, 4 of our contractor customers have told me you’ve made errors in their orders. In one case the contractor had to make a couple extra trips over the mountains due to missing items from the order. It’s a concern because the contractors are our lifeblood and can easily use another supplier which is not good for our business. Let’s talk about how you can process orders nearly perfectly.”

Now that the message is stated and you’ve invited Pete to participate (“Let’s discuss…”), you want to open it to a two-way dialog. Pete has a viewpoint – he’s the one doing the performance – and it has to be heard. He’ll come with reasons, excuses, complaints, or any number of possible responses. The key here is LISTENING. Not agreeing nor disagreeing, not arguing nor convincing, not telling nor giving directives. Listening just means working to understand his point of view. It can sound like this:

“Pete, it sounds like you’re frustrated because the contractors are demanding?” or “What you’re saying is the system is so complicated that you have trouble getting the orders right the first time?” or even “You didn’t know you were expected to do it right all the time?” One sentence, make it a question rather than a declaration.

You’re trying to put yourself in his shoes and understand what he means, the way he means it. When you have correctly summarized Pete, you will hear something like, “Yeah, that’s what I mean.” You can see how easy it would be to sound incredulous or frustrated or judgmental. Your goal is to be objective. Don’t judge. What you learn from the employee will help you two solve the problem.

I didn’t say it would be easy! But it works!

Once you’ve heard him out and gotten the confirmation that you accurately understood him, you move to the problem solving phase. A good question to ask is, “What steps can you take to get the orders right 99% of the time?”

So now you see how relevant the listening is: The steps to solve it will be very different if the reason is his inability to work with the contractors versus the reason is he doesn’t know how to operate the system. Avoid telling him what to do. Even if it’s the right thing, most people resist being told. You want to facilitate brainstorming here with both of you offering ideas and talking them over. If he has an idea that doesn’t meet your expectations, tell him so. Maybe you’ve never been clear but it’s not too late to start now. Together, create a plan. People support most what they help to create. It doesn’t have to be a big plan but you want him to leave the meeting with something specific that he helped build.

3. Never let it end with “Sorry, I’ll try harder.” No plan, no change. Once the plan is set, accountability begins.