In one company, I was occasionally asked to coach underperforming employees. In almost every case, the pattern is the same.
Manager tells me that they have been clear and direct with the employee and the employee knows they are at risk of termination.
I review emails and documentation and don't quite see the clarity that the manager is so sure of.
I talk with the employee and it is clear that the employee thinks they can improve, but are doing well.
If the employee is terminated, they express shock that it happened.
Is it possible that the employee was clueless or just lying? Sure. But in most cases, I don't think so.
Managers often think what is in their head and hearts are clearly understood by employees, regardless of the words and non-verbal clues they use. At the same time, to avoid coming off as harsh or threatening, the manager uses "couched" terms that end up diluting and often obscuring the message. The intentions are good and humane, but it ends up causing more harm in the long run.
When an employee is underperforming, here is what a manager needs to do:
Be very clear that they are underperforming and the potential results. As harsh as it may sound, say "if your performance doesn't improve, we may need to consider removing you from the position".
Be exceptionally clear on what has been below expectations. If you can't show it very clearly and directly, you shouldn't be placing the blame on the employee.
Ask them "what can I do to help? What resources can I provide to you?"
Let me be clear: firing an underperformer is the failure of the manager, particularly if that manager was the one who hired that person. It makes me question the manager's ability to hire, develop, coach, provide feedback, and set expectations. It makes me wonder how well they communicated. Is it always the manager's fault? No. But more often then not they should take a big part of the blame.
No doubt that talking with someone not performing well is difficult. It is an uncomfortable conversation for everyone involved. The problem is that managers think they are being nice, when in reality they are being unclear.