It’s been a long, difficult year for everyone, but even with lowered expectations, Jim was still underperforming. Yes, there was the stress of a pandemic, but he seemed to be taking advantage of the situation, missing deadlines without warning, skipping meetings without reason, and being openly critical of colleagues and clients. Not hitting performance targets was one thing—this was something more serious and potentially damaging to the team, the company, and Jim’s career. Much as she was loath to do it, Jim’s manager was going to have to give him a bad performance review.

Informing an employee that they aren’t performing up to snuff is difficult enough in a normal year, much less this year. And while managers are certainly giving employees lots of slack, they also can’t let issues fester. George Atkinson, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Human Resources Center of Expertise, says the important thing to reinforce when giving a poor performance review is that the employee is still a valued part of the team. “Otherwise, the conversation would be around an exit,” says Atkinson.

Against the backdrop of increasing burnout and depression, managers need a level of empathy and emotional intelligence when delivering bad news. Some steps to consider:

Study the self-assessment.

Assuming the employee has completed a self-assessment prior to the review—and if they haven’t, stress the importance of their doing so—compare it to previous ones to see how their review of themselves has changed and if it aligns with your perception as well. “This allows you to get into their brains and see how they are perceiving their work,” says Nancy Von Horn, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. The self-assessment could give clues as to how the pandemic, remote work, or homeschooling is affecting their mental and emotional state, for instance. More importantly, it can identify areas of agreement from which managers can start the conversation, says Von Horn.

Create a safe environment.

Atkinson advises starting the review by acknowledging the “unsettling issues” brought on by the pandemic that have negatively impacted everyone’s performance to some degree. Being transparent about extenuating circumstances sets the table for an honest conversation about expectations, deliverables, and performance. “It provides the employee with a safer environment to provide any specifics around what may be getting in the way of the job,” Atkinson says. It will also help with the relationship afterward, as what employees are most likely to remember about this time is how leaders made them feel.

Don’t make a bad review a negative experience.

This is no time for surprises, so Von Horn says managers should prepare themselves and employees even more for less-than-favorable reviews. “Discuss the parameters for the review well ahead of time and let the employee know how they can best prepare,” she says. And definitely don’t wing it. A good starting point, says Von Horn, is to share what is valued about the employee and why they are needed and appreciated on the team. Also, rather than pointing out deficiencies, she suggests trying to elicit agreement through dialogue on what has and hasn’t been working. “It is entirely possible to be compassionate and firm at the same time,” she says.

Reflect on your own purpose.

“Is the goal of the review to root out poor performers or to establish priorities heading into 2021?” asks Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory who works with clients on improving employee engagement and performance. For managers, this year’s review cycle should be less about business as usual and more about identifying barriers and issues that have hindered performance and eliminating them. “Avoid a rush to judgment and focus instead on what can be done to support people who are struggling,” says Royal. To be sure, part of the reason an employee may be struggling is because of an accountability gap or lack of direction resulting from the circumstances that has more to do with management than individual performance. “Reflect on why this stretch has become difficult, and take a long-term view on how it can be improved,” Royal says.

Give space to recover and deliver.

Some employees will, of course, react defensively or explosively to a bad review, particularly in light of the pandemic. So it’s important managers not react in turn or take it personally and give the employee space and time to decompress, says Atkinson. Once the review has been digested, he advises following up with an action plan that outlines the big goals for the next review period and provides the resources and support to achieve them. It’s also a good idea to provide a longer time frame to improve, perhaps six months instead of three, for instance. While a negative review may be hard to hear at first, hopefully it will “leave the employee feeling increasingly valued for having a boss willing to be honest in the spirit of wanting them to be successful.”

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