Joseph Grenny is the author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Our employee, “Mr. Ned,” will turn 70 in September after working for us for 17 years. He has been one of our most productive employees and a model for the younger technicians to aspire to. However, in recent months he has started to slow down and the quality of his work is declining.
While we care for him and appreciate his years of hard work, how can we tell him that we must let him go?
Shy about Retiring
In order to get this conversation right, you will need equal measures of respect, firmness, and clarity.
1. Respect. There’s a good chance Mr. Ned will find this conversation terribly unpleasant. However, you can reduce his suffering immensely if you make it plain that he is talking with someone who regards him highly. If he walks away concluding that he is not respected, your message about his performance will be lost. Share specific expressions of appreciation and recollections of important contributions he has made over the years. Use these compliments judiciously throughout your conversation.
2. Firmness. If you’ve concluded that he needs to retire, do not string him along by turning your conversation into a performance review. If you fail to communicate that this is not a motivation problem, but an insolvable ability problem, he may try to bargain with you for things that are not physically possible.
Now, I’m assuming in this situation that you have followed proper HR procedures and documented concerns over some period of time so that it is your prerogative to require retirement. If you have not, you will need to step back and begin that process.
3. Clarity. This is one of the most common areas in which people under-prepare for crucial confrontations. You need to be crystal clear on the facts. What evidence do you have that his performance has slipped to unacceptable levels? Can you demonstrate that it is a pattern? Do you have enough examples persuade him that this is not a motivation problem? If he is desperate to hang onto his job, he may try to refute your examples. To avoid this, you need to do two things: 1) refer regularly to the recurring pattern; 2) provide enough data points to establish the pattern.
For example, if he says, “But the customer kept feeding us new requirements on that drawing, so of course it would take longer!” You need to say, “I understand there may have been special circumstances. The issue is that over a period of months, with over a dozen drawings like this, your turnaround time has more than doubled. The pattern is the problem.”
Now, he may have noticed the same problem and is relieved to have it in the open. I watched this happen several years ago with a very senior engineer who was losing his hearing in a way that impeded his performance. He was too proud to wear a hearing aid until a colleague had a crucial confrontation with him in a wonderfully respectful but firm way. This storied engineer was grateful the issue had surfaced as the burden of pretending there was no problem had become quite taxing. The conversation helped him acknowledge he was moving to a different phase of life and take steps that prepared him for retirement. If your colleague tumbles to the conclusion, stop sharing data and simply move to a supportive conversation to explore next steps.
Finally, let me suggest an alternative option. I have seen many instances when companies are prudent enough to be creative and retain the wisdom aging employees have to offer. For example, could he move to a part-time role? Could he become an advisor? Could he mentor younger employees—even on a contract basis? Or could he simply be invited back now and again for project reviews?
It’s easy to underestimate the immense tacit knowledge senior employees have and later regret letting all of their experience walk out the door. One of the most sincere expressions of respect—and wisest HR moves you could make—would be to find a creative way to not “put him down,” but keep him up!
I can tell you care deeply about Mr. Ned and am confident he’ll know that as you hold this very crucial confrontation.