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By Darryl Stewart

A great way to deal with a serious employee performance issue

One of your staff is seriously under performing.  You have had the casual talks with them being supportive while outlining specific examples of the issues.  They have agreed the situation needs to improve, but it is not.  You need to go the next level.

John Spence has a great process for escalating this. He calls it “The Four Notes”

To start organize a meeting with the specific employee. Have them bring four pieces of blank paper to the meeting. At the onset of the meeting both of you should acknowledge the performance issues then move onto the pieces of paper.

Step 1 – Ask your employee this: “How will you improve your performance in the next 90 days?” Make sure their answer is specific and measurable. Agree on the answer then have the employee write the answer on the first piece of paper. Both of you should sign the piece of paper to show your agreement. This is note 1.

Step 2 – Ask your employee to answer this question: “What support do you need from me in achieving the goal from note 1?” Discuss, edit, and agree on the answer with the employee. The answer gets written down, signed, and becomes note 2.

Four notes = Four Agreements
Four notes = Four Agreements

Step 3 – Ask your employee to answer this question:  “What should the reward be if the goal from note 1 is achieved ?” Again the agreed upon answer becomes note 3.

Step 4 – Ask your employee to answer this question:  “What happens if you don’t achieve the goal from note 1” If this is truly a serious issue(s) and you have already exhausted other more subtle ways to deal with the issues, the employee will often answer that they should be fired or quit on note 4.


You monitor performance and follow through on what you promised on note 2. Two weeks before the end of the 90 days, you have a meeting with the employee to review progress. According to John’s studies the results will be:

  • 10-15% of the time an awesome turn around has occurred
  • 85-90% of the time only minor or no improvement at all has occurred – most people will quit at this point.
  • 10-15% of the time 90 days will be reached with no improvement and no quitting and you will have to terminate or take other action.

Thanks to John I now have a new tool.  The next time things get really serious with an under performing employee, I am going to say to myself “time for the four notes.”

IBEX Payroll extends our profound respect and immeasurable gratitude to all the ancestors and keepers of the land on whose traditional territories our work takes place. We acknowledge that we are on Treaty 1 territory, the traditional gathering place of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene people and the traditional homeland of the Métis people. This land is sacred, historical, and significant. 

Every time we acknowledge this truth, we have an invitation and an opportunity to reflect on the wrongs of the past, what we do in the present, and what we can do to continually honour the people whose lands and water we benefit from today. 

This statement only acts as a first step in honouring the land we reside on and its peoples, and must be paired with education, understanding and informed action.