You’re a hard worker. You like things to be done on time, and done well. To you, it’s a small ask.
So when someone you work with keeps turning in unfinished reports or sloppy pieces of work, it really grinds your gears.
Not only that, it affects everything else you do. That subpar assignment might mean you push back an important deadline, or piss off a client, or lose out on the respect of the rest of the company. Basically, this person’s mess-up costs you, and everyone around you, a lot.
Sitting down someone who’s turning in low quality work and giving them a talking to isn’t how most people like to spend their days. But it’s important to do respectfully and in a timely manner, if you care about your and your team’s success.
Muse career coach Eilis Wasserman emphasizes that there “isn’t one right way to do this.” But one rule of thumb is that “if you are not the supervisor and it affects your work, then bring it up to your supervisor first” before trying to tackle it yourself. Having the feedback come from a higher-up gives it more weight, and can feel more natural than when it comes from a co-worker of the same level. Plus, if your supervisor manages your co-worker too, they will be more familiar with the person’s work ethic, history, and day-to-day responsibilities and thus will be better able to come up with a solution.
But let’s say you’re the supervisor and you’re confronted with less-than-stellar performance from an employee—or you’re an employee who can’t count on your manager to do the work for you. Here are some tips for handling this conversation with ease.
Put Aside Any Negative Feelings
Getting handed sloppy work can irritate even the calmest of individuals, and understandably so. Maybe you’re already swamped and this is going to set you back an extra few hours. Maybe they’re a contractor and you’re paying them a lot of money that’s now gone to waste. Or maybe you’ve asked them time and again to follow the directions laid out in front of them, to no avail.
Regardless of how upset you might be, it’s super important to let your emotions settle before confronting the person about it. Take a walk, draft a venting email that you don’t send, maybe even wait a day or two—whatever works for you.
“If it’s anger, if it’s frustration, get rid of it,” says Muse career coach Steven Davis. You want to come across as the calm, cool, and collected professional you know you are. And bashing down the person’s door won’t just reflect poorly on you—it will easily turn them off from listening to you and taking your feedback seriously.
Don’t Assume Bad Intent
It’s possible this person has no idea how their actions are affecting you. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re not actively trying to annoy or undermine you.
Maybe they’re distracted by something happening outside the office or in their personal life. Or “maybe the tasks the person is given to do are too far beyond their capabilities,” says Davis. Or they could be slacking because they’re demotivated, whether because they’re unhappy in their job, under pressure from someone higher up, or uninterested in the work itself.
Or maybe this person knows they’re messing up, but is choosing to move forward to cover their tracks. “Sometimes they don’t want to appear inadequate even though the amount of work they were given is actually too much,” Wasserman suggests.
Consider if any of these could be the cause before jumping to conclusions on your own (like that they don’t care how difficult they’re making things for you). “Remember to start with trust,” says Wasserman. The only way you’ll know what’s really going on is to have a civil, productive conversation.
Address It Early (and Privately)
“It is better to address as soon as you can so future work will not be affected, and the employee can start improving,” Wasserman explains.
Addressing it earlier rather than later also allows you to have a more informal chat as opposed to a serious, prolonged discussion. The first time it happens, Davis explains, you might just check in to see if they were aware of what they’d done—maybe those spelling errors or incorrectly formatted spreadsheets were truly a mistake, and they’ll correct it on their own in the future. But “if they don’t, two times is one time too many,” he says. Once it’s clear this isn’t a one-time fluke but a bigger performance issue, you’ll most likely want to pull them aside privately to talk it out.
Reflect on the Person’s History
In preparation for your sit down, it’s key to gather some context.
Think about this employee’s past performance. Do they typically submit top-notch work, or has this happened before (and how many times)? Has it been a slow decrease in quality, or is this a complete 180 from what they usually turn in? How you address one big mess-up will require a much different approach than how you address someone who has been disappointing for some time.
Also, is there a trend you can pull out in terms of the kind of work they seem to struggle with, or is it pretty consistent no matter the assignment?
“Performance really is a combination of someone’s ability and how motivated they are,” Davis explains. So historical data can be a good indicator of whether it’s their ability or motivation (or something else) that’s holding them back.
Finally, what’s this person’s personality? Are they usually open to constructive criticism, or do they tend to get defensive when pulled aside? Knowing how they’ve previously handled feedback will help you decide your strategy. “Identify the DNA of the person. That’s how you influence people. Because what works on Steven is not maybe going to work on Alyse,” says Davis.
Consider Your Own Role
If you’re this person’s boss, it’s your job to support and guide them toward success—so if they’re struggling, ask yourself if there’s something you could be doing differently, too. Sifting through the possibilities helps you to weed out whether it’s a you problem, a them problem, or a bit of both (the most common outcome, unfortunately).
For example, you could have high expectations that your team is unaware of. “Some professionals may be perfectionists or impose their own personal standards on others’ work and consider work to be sloppy even though that might not be truly the case,” says Wasserman. So while something looks unpolished to you, it could seem up-to-par in your employee’s eyes.
Overall, says Davis, it’s really important for everyone to understand what your expectations are. If this person is underperforming because your directions weren’t clear, you’ll need to reiterate to them exactly what you’re looking for from them. If the reasons they’re having difficulty are more about their lack of support or skills to do the job, then your expectations and level of guidance may need to be adjusted for future assignments.
Ask Thoughtful Questions
When you meet, you’ll want to probe a bit to get to the bottom of the situation—what’s going on, what they understand about their performance, why they’re making the decisions they’re making, and what their expectations are for the project.
“I would start just by asking how the employee is feeling about their progress and their work” to get the ball rolling, says Wasserman. By letting them lead the conversation, she explains, they may also come to their own conclusion that something’s not quite right.
For example, you might say:
“[Name], how are you feeling about your progress on [project]? Do you feel the timeline and expectations are achievable?”
“I just wanted to check in as I’ve noticed the work you’ve submitted recently doesn’t match the level and accuracy of your previous work. Is there a reason why you think this might be different from things you’ve completed in the past? Is there any way I can assist you in getting it where it needs to be?”
Actually pay attention to and show interest in what the person’s telling you in response to these questions. “Maybe they need other resources, [or] other people to help them. They could possibly feel like they’re ignored, or they don’t have support,” says Davis. By showing you’re taking their answers seriously, they’re more likely to feel more comfortable opening up and taking feedback—now and later on.
Give Examples (But Avoid Being Accusatory)
It’s possible they genuinely don’t have an answer as to why their work isn’t meeting expectations, or don’t see any problem with the work they’re turning in.
In that case, you’ll want to come in with “relevant examples that you can point to instead of being vague,” says Wasserman. What exactly is wrong with what they’ve done, and what is it actually supposed to look like? And why is it supposed to look that way?
If what they’re doing is impacting others (besides you), you’ll want to mention that—albeit carefully—as well. “Sometimes after addressing the sloppiness, the worker may not realize the importance or severity of their errors. Without being accusatory you could show the worker how this type of poor work affects others in the company and the image of the company overall,” explains Wasserman. To do this effectively, you’ll want to avoid using “aggressive, accusatory language, or initially assigning direct blame” she adds. Rather than saying, “You messed up,” you’ll want to explain, “Here’s how [the person’s actions] creates [negative outcome].”
(Also, don’t actually say their work is “sloppy”—the word itself can be interpreted negatively on the receiving end, especially if the person doesn’t perceive their output as having been a result of laziness or carelessness.)
Finally, remind them that you care about their growth and success. You know this person probably wants to move up in their role—so make it clear following your changes will help get them there.
Let’s put this all into practice. Say that your direct report keeps turning in hurried-looking documents, causing you to have to redo them before submitting them to a client. You could say the following:
“I wanted to talk to you about your recent work on the Goldman account. The last two documents I’ve received from you have had a few glaring errors I’ve had to fix. Specifically, I noticed in your last report that you didn’t fact-check a lot of the statistics we quoted, which caused me to have to spend a few hours reworking some of the sections where I spotted discrepancies. This was also the case in the report from last month, where we actually didn’t cite some important data and I had to add it in. I’m curious if there’s a reason why you might have overlooked these?
“I want to be able to trust you with these assignments with little supervision and eventually be able to hand this account over to you to manage independently—because I believe you absolutely have the potential to handle it. However, I can’t do that unless I’m sure these kinds of things won’t fall through the cracks and we’re giving our clients our best work. So I want to work with you to ensure this doesn’t happen moving forward.
“If you think extending the deadline would give you more time to refine the details, or creating a checklist for things to remember to include in each report would help, or if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to spend this time together talking through how I can support you.”
It’s possible just having this talk will be enough to get the person back on track—a kick in the butt can do wonders for someone who’s coasting. But even if it requires you to rework some of the ways you collaborate, you’ll both come out stronger.
Keep an Eye on Their Progress
Wasserman emphasizes that even after you’ve chatted and come up with a plan you should track their progress and check in from time to time—giving feedback, readjusting your strategy, and offering solutions. More importantly, if their sloppiness continues, you’ll need to make it clear there are consequences to their actions—whether that’s being put on a performance improvement plan or getting let go.
But give them the chance to prove themself, too. If they immediately start to show improvement on a small scale, acknowledge that. Compliments and positive reinforcement will only encourage the person to keep up the good work—making your job that much easier.
Photo of person talking to another person about their work courtesy of Cavan Images/Getty Images.
As Editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. Her work has been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., Motto, CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author