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Talking to Underperforming Employees Doesn’t Have to Be Tense

Ask supportive questions, don’t make assumptions, and stay off Zoom.

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Illustration: Oscar Bolton Green for Bloomberg Businessweek

Even in the best of times, no boss looks forward to giving feedback to an underperforming employee. In a pandemic—with people working remotely, home-schooling, care-giving, and, more recently, processing the protests—it’s even trickier.

The usual methods for holding people accountable still apply: Before you decide that someone is underperforming, ask yourself if the employee has been given clear, mutually agreed-upon goals and has received frequent and specific feedback. “You should be having a variety of conversations about how the employee is doing and how they’re feeling about their work before you ever come to the point of having a conversation about their performance,” says Liz Kislik, a management consultant and executive coach.