Asking the right questions for a meaningful and effective check-ins

employee check in

Successful one-on-one meetings with employees are like opening a locked vault filled with treasures

You’ve noticed a tinge of tension in the air. Your team isn’t playing well together, not as well as usual. Levity is missing. Deadlines are being met, but just barely. One of your group left on paternity leave several weeks ago. A top talent employee from another department has finally been identified and recruited to fill the gap. They start tomorrow. You’re a tad worried about how they’ll fit into an environment that’s not up to standard, productively or socially. You’ve heard about one-on-one meetings with employees. HR touts them as the panacea for corporate ills. Time to test their claims.

The next day when you meet with the sixth and newest member of your team, you have a great employee onboarding session; your first official one-on-one, if you will. “What do you hope to get out of this placement?” you ask. “Is there anything specific you’d like to learn?…You have a Business Degree, and your Masters in International Development, and now, you’re here working on policy for the agri-business…where do you want to go with this background?”

You think out-loud about how their Business Degree must mean they have a comfort level with numbers and ask how they are with stats. They express a hint of hesitancy. You counter by suggesting they give it a try—they’re the best qualified of the bunch you encourage—and assure them if after a while it’s not working out, you’ll rejig things. Their enthusiasm is palpable. You mention you’re always there for them. Invite them to reach out anytime with ideas, concerns, questions—anything. You both exchange a few personal stories, you about your family reunion weekend, them about their ultimate frisbee tournament. You agree to meet on Mondays at 9:00 a.m. for a weekly 30-minute check-in and ask what kinds of topics they’d like to see on the agenda.

By the end of an hour together both of you are smiling, relaxed and pumped for the day ahead. One down, five more to go.

Over the next week, you hold one-on-one meetings with your other employees. You learn one of the team members is into early stages of Alzheimer elder care for their widowed father. Medical appointments and general time commitments are overwhelming and there are no siblings living nearby to help. You agree on a flexible and remote-working arrangement with weekly check-ins or more if needed. Provided they meet their goals timely and efficiently it doesn’t matter to you when or where the work is done. The four others express in their own words and ways the stress of trying to manage their own workloads on top of the responsibilities they’ve inherited from the co-worker on leave. One is reticent to give up these new assignments because of the challenges and opportunities associated with learning something new. The others are more than happy to turn things over to the newest team member so they can resume a better work/life balance. Two, share in confidence their concern for their colleague’s elder care burden and how they’ve been doing what they can to lighten the load.

By opening the doors to these kinds of conversations in a manner that shows you’re listening and genuinely care, you’re also opening the door to trusting rapport.

One-on-one meetings with employees are like opening a locked vault filled with treasures. In your case, the treasures are the skills, passions, and potential of every individual on your team. Asking the right questions and actively listening, really absorbing what each share, opens the safe’s combination lock.

To get started, consider a walk-about to chat with your team members individually. Tell them you’d like to set up regularly scheduled check-in meetings with time for you to talk about what you need to discuss—organizational updates for instance—and for the employee to do the same. Give some ideas of the kinds of things you might cover, like promotion paths, professional development opportunities, tackling challenging interpersonal relations, ideas and innovation, organizational goals, and how the team and individual fit. Mention how both of you will need to prepare for agenda topics in advance for a meaningful exchange. Rather than dictate a time that fits into your schedule, select a meeting time mutually. Recognize frequency will vary depending on the individual and their function. For some it might be weekly, for others bi-weekly or monthly. Whatever you both decide—commit and stick to it.

10 Tips to Keep in Mind for Effective One-on-One Meetings with Employees

  • Approach this as a time for feedback: positive, supportive, forward-thinking, aspirational.
  • Ask for employee feedback about the organization, policies and procedures. Can things be done differently? Where and how?
  • Be open to being managed upward. Your employees probably have insights that can help you in your own professional development. (Does your management style work for them? Are you giving enough feedback and is it what they need?)
  • View these sessions as a time to share organizational news, a time to review goals individually and within context of your department and the larger organization, a time to look at where employees want to go and how to get there.
  • Find ways to support or offer training in areas where employees need improvement or want to develop new skills for professional development and growth.
  • Acknowledge and sing the praises of jobs well done.
  • Remember and remind yourself and your employees these one-on-ones are two-way conversations; private chats about what’s going on professionally and personally.
  • Choose a location for these confidential conversations. Their office or yours? In a coffee shop around the corner or a quiet corner table in the cafeteria? By phone for those working remotely?
  • Sometimes meetings may take a handful of minutes rather than the full 30 minutes or hour you’ve set aside. The employee has nothing pressing from their end and neither do you. No problem. Just remember to check-in as agreed.
  • Some say setting a formal agenda keeps one-on-one meetings with employees on track and sessions productive. Others prefer a less formal approach and invite employees to lead off the conversation. Choose and use the technique that’s best for you and the person with whom you’re meeting. Having an agenda, though, might be the best technique the first few times to set direction and tone until you’ve both established a cadence of your own.

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