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6 tips for handling a conversation around poor performance, demotion 

6 tips for handling a conversation around poor performance, demotion 

May 23, 2024
Howard Cohen

A Dialogue

Sharon (executive director of a medium-size nonprofit, conducting the annual evaluation of a struggling associate director): Good morning, Lydia. As you know, we are here to conduct the in-person portion of your annual evaluation. I have read your self-assessment and the questionnaires from your 360 reviews. I would like to go over some of the items you and others have identified.

Lydia (Lydia has been associate director for two years. She has not been doing well in this role.): Good morning, Sharon. I worked very hard on my self-assessment, and I think I have been doing better this year.

Sharon: Yes Lydia, there are some areas in which you have shown significant improvement. There are also some areas where I have concerns. We will get into those a little later. First, I would like to hear from you about where you think you are doing well and where you think you need to improve.

Lydia: As you know Sharon, when I took on this job, many of the responsibilities were new to me. It has taken me some time to figure out what I’m supposed to do. I believe that I am well-organized, thorough and meet all deadlines on time. I think I need to work on handling difficult people.

Sharon:  I think how you meet your responsibilities is a good place to start. Let’s look at the goals we agreed on a year ago.

(Lydia and Sharon work through the goal statements. Lydia has accomplished a number of her goals related to office organization. She has not done well on goals related to leading her team.)

Sharon: As I interpret your accomplishments in relation to your goals, I would say that you have mastered the details of managing your office but that you have not been so successful at managing your team. 

Lydia: In my defense, some of the people on my team resent my leadership. They often do not comply with my directives, they ignore my memos, and they go to great lengths to undermine my authority. If I make suggestions, they accuse me of micro-managing. I would be much more successful, if “the old guard” accepted my leadership.

Sharon: “The old guard,” as you call them, Lydia, are some of our most productive employees. Talk to me about your approach to working with them. What do you do to help them be effective in their jobs?

Lydia: I’ve given them all detailed job descriptions; I ask them to report weekly on their stated goals; I let them know if I think they are not staying on track.

Sharon: It seems you have put a lot of thought into monitoring your team. Tell me what you do to support them.

Lydia: The are experienced employees, Sharon, they know what to do. I don’t see myself as their babysitter.

Sharon: Your response is consistent with the written evaluations your team members have offered in their responses to the annual questionnaire about working for you, Lydia. They say they feel micro-managed and unsupported.

Lydia: I am really trying to treat them as adults, Sharon. I don’t think they like me very much and they seem to resent my authority over them.

Sharon: You have a lot of great skills, Lydia, and you have the potential to make valuable contributions to our organization. However, I don’t think you have great management skills, and the time and energy you are putting into trying to lead is detracting from fulfilling your goals, from helping your team members meet their full potential and from the effectiveness of our organization.

Lydia: That seems very harsh, Sharon. You make it sound like this is all my fault. Are you firing me?

Sharon: No Lydia, I’m not firing you, but I am seriously contemplating finding you a role in the organization where you can be more successful and make a more positive contribution. I hope you will be open to hearing me out on this.

Lydia: This comes as a shock and a surprise to me Sharon. I don’t know what to say.

Sharon: I don’t want you to say anything today, Lydia. I want you to think about our conversation and about whether you are open to a change in your role. I also want you to consult with our HR department, so you have a clear understanding of your rights as an assistant director and my prerogatives as the director. I have taken the liberty of letting the HR director know to expect a call from you.

I want you to let me know by the end of the week if you are open to continuing our discussion about trying to find a non-director level role for you here. If that is not something you want to consider, I will, of course, provide you with my evaluation and will initiate the formal process of notifying you of your sub-standard performance. Whether you wish to stay here in a new role, remain in your current role under “performance review” status or seek outside employment is up to you. I will do what I can to support whichever decision you make. 

Let’s schedule a meeting for Friday. You can let me know then which path you want to follow. Schedule the appointment with my administrative assistant on your way out today.

Please understand that I would like you to be successful here, but if you would prefer to be elsewhere, I’ll do my best to help you find a more suitable position. 

I look forward to continuing our discussion on Friday.


  1. Raise the issue in the context of an existing process, if possible.
  2. Consult with HR before you take any action.
  3. Listen before you provide your assessment.
  4. Describe a path forward; avoid dead end options.
  5. Leave time for thought between the discussion and the decision.
  6. Focus on what is best for the organization.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.