The Crossroads Conversation It’s never easy to let a supervisee go. But how you deliver the difficult news can make a big difference to that employee’s response and next moves. Make It Work
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Make It Work  |   February 01, 2015
The Crossroads Conversation
Author Notes
  • Janet McNichol, is ASHA’s human resources director. jmcnichol@asha.org
    Janet McNichol, is ASHA’s human resources director. jmcnichol@asha.org×
Article Information
Professional Issues & Training / Make It Work
Make It Work   |   February 01, 2015
The Crossroads Conversation
The ASHA Leader, February 2015, Vol. 20, 34-35. doi:10.1044/leader.MIW.20022015.34
The ASHA Leader, February 2015, Vol. 20, 34-35. doi:10.1044/leader.MIW.20022015.34
“Saying what needs to be said at the right time, to the right person, in the right manner is managerial courage.”
—Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger, “FYI For Your Improvement: A Guide for Developing and Coaching”
You’re a supervisor and you’re heading down the path to letting someone go. You’ve observed the employee’s work, provided feedback, coached, counseled and put a performance improvement plan in place. Your supervisee still has time to complete the plan, but the outcome is clear: Unless something miraculous happens, the person will fail. The fact is that despite your repeated explanations of what you need, the employee’s work doesn’t meet your expectations. It’s difficult and unpleasant, and you hate spending your time this way.
Now let’s switch perspectives for a moment, seeing this from the point of view of your failing employee, Jane. In the beginning, Jane might actually appreciate your extra attention and interest in her work. She puts in additional effort. Then the feedback starts to take a different tone—it’s clear that she’s disappointing her supervisor (you), but she can’t get her head around what you want. When you present her with the formal performance improvement plan, she wonders if it’s designed to help her succeed or fail. She gives it her best shot but gets more negative feedback from you, and the situation feels out of her control. Her Sunday evenings fill with dread as she thinks of returning to the office Monday morning.
The situation is a drain on both of you and no one is happy. It’s time for a crossroads conversation—that face-to-face exchange in which the supervisor lays out the reality that things aren’t working out. How do you present this difficult news in a way that’s the least hurtful to Jane and the most constructive for her future? Let’s take a closer look at how to conduct this conversation with compassion and managerial courage.
The talk
During a crossroads conversation, you acknowledge where you are and the likely outcome, and try to put yourself in Jane’s shoes. It goes something like this: “Jane, at this point, I thought it would be good for us to step back and review the situation we’re in. Despite what I know to be your best efforts, you’re still falling short of what I expect of someone in your role. I’m still committed to giving you the time allotted in the plan, and I’ll keep an open mind. But unless there is a truly remarkable turnaround, I can’t imagine you being successful.
“I know this is probably tough to hear, but I thought you might benefit from having some time to think about what you want to do next. I may even be able to do some things to assist you in making a transition.”
Worried about keeping the conversation on track? I advise supervisors to:
  • Create a script. Write out what you plan to say and practice with someone you trust.

  • Use neutral, non-judgmental language. Describe the situation like a third-party observer might.

  • Deliver the bad news up front. Don’t spend a lot of time rehashing the issues.

Many people fear that an employee will get angry and start yelling, but that’s not a typical response. If it does happen, tell Jane to go home and set a time to resume the conversation in the morning. That will give you a chance to regroup and arrange to have someone else with you during the follow-up conversation. Your supervisor or someone from the human resources team are good candidates.
The most typical response is for the employee to withdraw and become very quiet. In this case, it’s helpful to arrange a follow-up conversation to give Jane time to form her thoughts and questions. Occasionally, the person will cry and become very upset. If this happens, offer Jane a tissue, then excuse yourself to get her a glass of water. This will give her a few minutes to regain her composure. Remember, the last thing you want is for her to feel humiliated.
The aftermath
This crossroads conversation begins to put Jane back in control, which is essential to a smooth transition. Follow-up conversations should begin to take on a different tone, too. You could begin by asking Jane if she’s given some thought to what she’d like to do next. Then, offer to help her explore options she expresses an interest in. You may offer to review her resume or, if you have the resources, set her up with outplacement services.
Admittedly, not everyone makes this shift overnight. Jane may try to hang on a little longer, bring you reports and ask for your feedback. Your job is not to lose sight of the big picture. Keep bringing the conversation back around. For example: “Jane, I appreciate the effort you put into this document, and it did require fewer corrections than some of your other work, but it doesn’t change my overall evaluation that this job isn’t the best fit for you.”
Terminations are always difficult. Treating people with respect is essential to making these difficult situations go as smoothly as possible. In most instances, the most respectful thing you can do is to be forthcoming, and help the employee regain a sense of control. Once an employee starts to shape a plan of action, you can shift into more of a supportive role. This will greatly reduce the stress level for both of you and allow for a smooth transition.
If you want to explore this topic more, I recommend reading “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, and this post from Penelope Trunk: “The Best Way to Deal With Getting Fired.” I especially like the first tip: The stories you tell yourself about your life are essential to your self-image. A good supervisor makes it easier for someone to tell herself a good story. A great supervisor makes it easier for someone to tell herself a good story even when she’s being fired.
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February 2015
Volume 20, Issue 2