First-class coach

I have a problem in that one of my members of staff, who is Asian, isn't very good at her job.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I want to give her critical feedback, but I am worried that I will be accused of racism.

A: This is a potentially incendiary issue and one that must be treated sensitively. You must be firm on treating this employee exactly as you should any of your employees - with respect and transparency. In the UK, equality in employment is the law. Equality means equal opportunities to do our best, and this includes being informed when we are falling below the required standard. If no-one ever tells us, how are we to find out? And, if we are ignorant of our shortcomings, what are the chances that we'll continue to underperform and gradually alienate colleagues who do receive negative feedback? We will also wonder why we are apparently exempt from the consequences of poor performance.

So there is no question that you must address this issue and that the first step is to alert your staff member that there is a problem. The trickier thing is how to go about doing it so that she gets the message and you avoid false accusations of racism.

The first thing to establish is the exact nature of her poor performance. Is it constant or only occasional? Does it stem from lack of knowledge, lack of confidence, a negative attitude or some other specific cause? Are you the only person who has noticed this, or do others have information that will be useful to you in providing accurate, relevant feedback to your staff member that will enable her to improve?

The next thing is timing: do you carry out regular performance reviews with your people, where you acknowledge achievements as well as focus on behaviour and outputs that are less satisfactory? If you do, it will be much easier to present this feedback session as a routine matter, rather than singling out someone and perhaps appearing to be picking on an individual.

As with any development session that includes feedback, start by asking your report how she thinks things are going: what's going well, what's going less well and what she would like to focus on developing in the future. Listen carefully to her responses: you may discover the reasons for her poor performance and you'll be able to judge whether she has any insight into the fact that she is not making the grade.

By listening first you will also begin to establish some rapport: here is her manager showing an interest in her development, wanting her to succeed. When you have heard what she has to say, you can start the three-step process of feedback. You find something to praise in how she works (perhaps agreeing with what she has mentioned as going well), so that she knows that you don't dismiss her and her work entirely and will be more prepared to listen. Then mention the areas where improvement is required, citing specific examples, rather than implying that she habitually does something inappropriate or always fails to do what's required.

Avoid an accusatory, judgmental tone. If she denies that there's a problem, remind her that there is at least a perceived problem and that she must take action to rectify this misperception.

Finally, ask her what she will do to change the situation. Give her a vision of the results you're looking for from her and ask her how she could go about achieving them. If she can suggest appropriate means to improve her work, so much the better - if it's her idea she's more likely to do it. But, if her suggestions won't get to the heart of the issue, you'll have to offer suitable alternatives and make sure that she is clear on expectations. Put a timeframe on her remedial actions and agree how you will both know she's making progress. Record your agreement, setting a date to review things, ideally not more than four to six weeks away.

In the meantime, if you catch her 'doing something right', make sure you praise her. If the first meeting went badly, it would be as well to have a third party present next time around. When you review the situation together, collect some evidence on how she is performing beforehand, and go through the same three steps. With any luck, things will have taken a turn for the better. But if there has been no progress and no attempt on her part to change, you may have to take disciplinary measures. The fact that you have a written record of what you agreed will be a help in future negotiations, as it would be whatever the race, colour or creed of the employee.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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