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The Difficult Conversation

June 5, 2007
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Once a month, I host a teleseminar. My intention with this free conference phone call is to create a forum for discussing business challenges and solutions. It’s a lot of fun and I always learn something.

Last month, I invited fellow consultant Al Levi to join me on the call. Al and I have been friends forever and we often work with the same clients. We put our heads together to share our advice about having the difficult conversation. This is a talk with your employee about his or her poor performance. When to let it go…or let the employee go? What to do?

Al and I shared our thoughts and got some great input from participants. Here is a sampling from our conversation…

Ellen:How can you avoid having the difficult conversation in the first place?

Al: That reminds me of a poster we had on the wall of our office. It showed a cartoon of a guy trying to escape from the jaws of an alligator. The poster said, “It’s hard to remember the objective was to drain the swamp when you are butt deep in alligators.” The time to think about solving the problem is before you are butt deep in it. Do you only talk to your employees about the things that are going wrong? Why not catch them doing something right? Acknowledge when they do the right things. Then, you will be more comfortable addressing the behaviors that are out of line.

Your employees are like your kids. I don’t mean this in a negative way. El, you and I know that we still feel and act like kids…we are all kids at heart. We want to hear when we are doing the right things. And we want to know the rules of the game. You may want your kid to keep his room clean. You’ve got to show him how to do it. Show him what a clean room looks like and how to get it that way. If your kid knows the rules and doesn’t clean his room, there have to be some negative consequences. With your employees, define the rules and hold them accountable.

E: What if you tell him 100 times to do something and he still doesn’t do it?

A: Well, it has to be in writing. If it isn’t written, it isn’t real. And, hey, I am over 50. Who can remember anything? Keep it clear and be willing to create a series of consequences, progressive discipline, to help him get back on track.

E: Let’s talk about the poop sandwich. This is where you surround the difficult conversation with praise and love. “You know I think you are wonderful and I appreciate all you do for us. I love it that you come in early and stay late when we get slammed with no-heat calls. Still, you have not been wearing your uniform and that’s not OK. And, stay beautiful, man. You are a key member of the team.” Love – thump – love. That’s a poop sandwich. What do you think about that?

A: Oh, I have given poop sandwiches! Even worse, I have pulled a guy into my office to talk about the fact that he isn’t wearing his uniform and given him a raise! I’ve gotten smarter. Have regular conversations with your employees – 5 minutes – what’s going wrong, what’s going right. Stay in communication with the people who report to you. And when we all know the rules, you can discuss behaviors objectively. I see you doing the right thing, or not, based on the written procedures.

E:So are you a fan of the year end review?

A:No. Imagine if I said to my kid, “Keep your room clean all year and in December we will go to Disneyland.” So she comes up to me in December and she is wearing her Mickey Mouse ears and is ready to go. Then, I say, “Well, remember on June 2nd your room was a mess? We aren’t going to Disneyland.” Better to stay in daily, weekly communication with your team members.

E: Would you fire someone the first time he broke the rules? Or does he get a gimme? When do you look the other way, and when do you show him the door?

A: First of all, make sure the expectation is clear. Suppose you show up and I say to you, “El, you are not in uniform today.”

E: Oh, yes, I am wearing the uniform.

A: No, you look like a slob.

E: I think I look great!

A: Well, we could go round and round with that. So, I counsel my clients to take a photo of each employee dressed in a clean and complete uniform. Then, when you show up, I could say, “This is the proper uniform. You don’t look like that picture.” It’s objective so we are not going to argue.

I recommend you use a digital camera to document uniform standards, as well as on-the-job procedures, truck stock systems, how to organize the office supply closet…you name it.

Then, the first time you don’t comply with a procedure that you have been trained on, signed off on in the operations manual, then we have a short conversation. “This is what’s out of line. Don’t do that again.” This is the verbal warning. The way I would wrap up the conversation is to say, “El, as soon as you walk out the door, all is forgiven. I am going to make a note in your file that we had this conversation. That’s the end of it.”

Unless you continue to break the rule. The second time I’ll say, “We’ve already discussed this uniform issue. Today, I am going to give you a written warning. And, let you know that the third step is suspension and the last step is ‘You’re out of here.’” I am a fan of three steps.

E:You are such a tough guy, Al.

A: I am a tough guy. At my company, I was tough because I knew I could hire and train new people. I wasn’t going to be held hostage.

E:That’s because you have the systems documented, you’ve trained people on them, you’ve done it before.

A: Yep. I want to help people who already work at the company get better. Ultimately, the people you bring up through your systems, train “from scratch,” are going to be your strongest performers. Four steps are plenty. Does anyone on this phone call have more time than they know what to do with?

E: I hear you! Who wants to have the same conversation over and over? With some of my clients, I have finally put my foot down and said, “I refuse to talk about that person anymore. My advice is to engage these four steps to get him back on track. If you aren’t willing to do that, I don’t have any other advice to offer about the situation.”

So, to recap, the four steps are…


A: The verbal warning – the Rubber Bullet. Have a short discussion. Leave a note in the employee’s file that you talked to him about being out of uniform.

The written warning – use a simple form to jot down the problem behavior and both of you sign it. Put it in the employee’s file. Give him a copy.

The suspension – time to go home and think about your career.

Employment termination – time to leave.

Really, the only reason to take someone through these steps is so you don’t have to fire him. You want to let him know he is headed for the cliff and it is time to stop and turn around. You want to hold your team members to high standards. Right stuff people will respond to that tough love.

E: Al, here’s a question: what if I have been a good girl for a long time? Do we ever wipe the slate clean and start fresh?

A: Sure, you can put that in your manual, too. After six months, a year, with no violations, we’ll push the reset button. Do watch for the “Fence Tester.” This is someone who is going to try to rack up first offenses on a variety of different topics. Make sure you are clear about how many conversations you are going to have in total before someone is shown the door.

Keep in mind, when I applied these steps at my own shop, it was a union shop. One day the shop steward stopped by my office. The shop steward represents the employees at the company in any disputes that they may have with management. The shop steward said, “Al, we don’t fire anyone anymore. When they don’t follow the systems, they choose not to work here.” That’s a nice place to be in your company.

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