informal is ok

Are Informal Performance Discussions OK?

I often find employers are afraid to raise performance concerns with their staff.

They may not want to get heavy-handed or issue a warning. They just want to raise some concerns – to let their staff know what is, or is not, an acceptable performance.

But like them, you may fear you will say something wrong, and that it will lead to a personal grievance.

What’s more, you may not like personal conflict. Telling someone you’re not happy with them seems like a guaranteed path to conflict at work.

Yet, by no means should you shy away from robust discussions about performance. If you’re not happy with your employee’s output, they deserve to know – before you boil over.

It doesn’t have to be so bad that you threaten a warning. It’s fine to have an “informal” discussion without going near disciplinary action.


Let me explain what I mean by “informal” versus “formal” performance discussions.

This isn’t exactly a legal distinction. There is no legal definition of informal or formal processes to guide us.

Generally, formal processes contemplate disciplinary outcomes – like a warning or dismissal. It may be better to refer to them as disciplinary processes.

The reason we say they are formal, is that if disciplinary action results, the process must be a fair one. The need for fairness usually necessitates a formal approach.

Informal processes or discussions do not immediately threaten disciplinary action. They may be coaching sessions or included as part of a performance review. You still need to be fair, but the process is less rigid.

As it turns out, informal and formal may not be the best descriptors. You may give informal feedback during a performance review, but even that has some air of formality to it. And informal reviews can have consequences – pay increases or bonuses may be on the line.

But if you take an informal process to be one that does not threaten disciplinary action, then you get my point.


Employees need feedback to improve – to meet your expectations.

Sometimes you’ll need to threaten with disciplinary action if your employee’s performance doesn’t improve. But often it’s not that serious. You just want your employee to understand how to do their job better.

Informal feedback is about filling that gap. It’s more than okay. But be sure that you give it knowing that you’re not going to go down the disciplinary route.

And make your employee aware that, unlike a formal process, disciplinary action is not on the cards.

Then, be honest about the improvements you need to see in their performance.


You should give your employees informal feedback on their performance. It is good for them and good for your business if you do.

But when doing so, make it clear that you are not starting a disciplinary process. In the context of a regular performance review, that should already be clear. At other times, you will want to emphasise this to allay the employee’s concerns that their job is on the line.

Yet you can tell your employee that further action may result if they continue not to meet your expectations. You may start a disciplinary process at that point.

If you want to go formal instead, see this guide on how to carry out a formal performance management process.

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