What to Do When Employees Are Underperforming?

It’s time to pull your head out of the sand—you need to deal with poor performers! Sometimes it is uncomfortable to deal with things you would rather avoid, but there is no advantage to delaying the inevitable.performing

If an employee is not stepping up to the mark, as a manager, you must take the appropriate actions to encourage change. If such change does not occur, you may be forced to take more hardline actions and initiate termination proceedings.

But, how do you actually know that you have a poorly performing team member?

This may seem like an arbitrary, obvious question, but it is one that needs exploring: Where are you getting your information from? Colleagues, office gossip, gut feeling, or irrefutable data? This is important too, as it has been documented that extensive employee manipulation of feedback ratings has occurred in companies that have utilized 360-degree feedback for performance evaluation, including General Electric, IBM, and Amazon.

Therefore, relying on opinions from colleagues is not the best course of action. Instead, when faced with the question of quality of performance, it is better to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is your employee failing to produce results? Of course for certain jobs, such as sales, it is much easier to determine if targets are being met. But regardless or the type of job, it is imperative to measure the employee’s performance.
  2. Does your employee make a lot of mistakes? We are human, and all make mistakes. However, what should be questioned here is the frequency of employee’s blunders. If the employee makes substantially more mistakes than everyone else, you must consider it a red flag.
  3. Does the employee take more of your time? As a manager, you most likely have several people working under you, all of whom you must supervise. Therefore, it is important to make sure that no one employee takes up too much of your time. If he or she does, you must put some thought into why this may be.
  4. Does the employee need a lot of supervision? As above, managers do not have an infinite amount of time; therefore, it is important to have team members that can follow instructions and work independently. If one employee is taking up too much of your time, you must assess the usefulness of the time spent “supervising” and whether it would be better spent elsewhere.

If you answered yes to one or more of the above questions, chances are you have a poor performer on your hands. So, what are the next steps to be taken? How do you as a manager deal with the poor performer and inspire him or her to change his or her ways? And if this cannot be done, how do you let the employee go?

Come on, get your head out of the sand; let’s jump in!

The Recipe for Success

While the above questions may serve as a “warning system,” you should take a lesson out of Google’s book and rely on data—cold hard facts. This way, you ensure that emotions, existing preconceptions, and gut feelings play no part when rooting out and exposing poor performers. This makes it easier for you as a manager to relay this information to the employee in question. In this sense, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.

Step 1: Do Performance Reviews

In order to have the data on which to base your performance decisions, you should carry out performance reviews of your whole team. This will provide you with the necessary information to assess the individual contribution of each team member. To carry out effective performance reviews that yield the correct information is hugely important and more challenging than you might think. The Society for Human Resource Management finds that over 90% of managers consider performance reviews an ineffective means of gathering actionable information.

Step 2: Evaluate the Reasons for the Poor Performance

Once you have deemed your employee’s performance sub-par, it is important to ask yourself the reasons for this. It may very well be the case that a small adjustment in work focus or direction is all that the employee needs to get back on track. Once the data have revealed poor performance, here are the questions to ask yourself and the steps you should take to resolve the issues:

  1. Is this behavior uncharacteristic of the employee? Perhaps this is an employee that has been working with you for many years and his or her performance has only just taken a nosedive. Therefore, the poor performance is uncharacteristic and most likely explainable.

In most of these instances, the key to resolving the issues is, you guessed it, communication. Sit down and have a conversation with the employee. Relay your worries about his or her performance, and start a conversation to get to the root of the problem. For tips on how to broach difficult topics with employees, read this piece on how to give a good performance review.

  1. Is the employee dealing with unusual issues at work or experiencing some personal traumas at home? As much as everyone would like to leave their problems at the door; this is not always possible, and people dealing with serious problems in their personal lives may find it difficult to focus.

Once again, sit down with the employee in question. Perhaps he or she is dealing with issues you are unaware of. It could be any number of things, from bullying in the workplace to a nasty break-up. Either way, if you are aware of the problems, you can maybe cut the employee some slack while he or she deals with them.

  1. Has the workload of the employee suddenly changed? A decrease in the quantity of work can have an effect on employees’ ability to stay focused or motivated, as they may feel as though they are being edged out. Likewise, a sudden increase in workload may also hamper an employee’s ability to prioritize tasks and will ultimately disrupt his or her workflow, resulting in tasks not being completed in a timely manner.

Again, you should have a one-on-one meeting to discuss how the employee’s priorities are aligned with those of the business. Perhaps it is just a quiet period for the business, and everyone’s workload has decreased. If your employee is feeling demotivated by the decrease in work, explain this to him or her. Equally so, if the employee’s workload is too high, have a conversation and discuss how you can fix this, perhaps by offloading some of it to another employee.

  1. Has the focus of the employee’s work changed? Or is the employee not suited to the job? Perhaps one employee has left, and the employee in question has picked up some of the slack. However, it is not work that the employee enjoys or is motivated to complete. Or perhaps the employee is just not suited to the job. In the instance of the latter, you as a manager are failing to tap into the employee’s genuine talents, and that situation should be rectified before you lose the employee for good.

A meeting to discuss the employee’s talents and passions are in order here. If it is the case that the employee really dislikes a part of his or her workload, and another employee would be better suited to the task, you should consider a reshuffle and a different division of labor. This may be all you need to do to get your employee back on track. If so, it is undeniably time very well spent. If this isn’t feasible, the needs of the business must come first, and it may be necessary to consider termination.

  1. Is the employee just a poor performer in everything they do? This is an unfortunate place to find yourself, and it is a last resort. But if the employee is genuinely not suited to the company or to the work he or she is required to do, or if it is genuinely a case of just overall poor performance, you need to terminate the employee.

Review: Take 2

At this point, you should have a second review period. Use this review to ensure that you correctly diagnosed the reason for poor performance during the first review.

If you diagnosed the problem correctly and have spoken with the employee, but his or her performance has still not improved, you are left with no option but to initiate termination proceedings.

However, if results are starting to improve, this review period can be used to reinforce the employee’s renewed good performance by acknowledging his or her efforts and setting new goals so as to continue the upward trajectory.

Set up additional meetings with the employee so that you can continue to support and monitor his or her progress. Once the employee’s level of output reaches average company levels, congratulations! You have successfully turned around a poor performer!

After All Is Said and Done

It should be apparent by now that there are many reasons for poor performers. Be careful not to jump to conclusions and assume the poor performer is just lazy. There could be other factors at play, as shown above. Take time to talk with your employee and isolate the issue. With a bit of cooperation and effort from both sides, you’ll be able to resolve the problem, and in no time at all, you’ll have turned a poor performer into a valuable and productive member of your team. Well done!

If you’d like to learn more about how to create a better, happier work environment, download this white paper to discover how to boost your company’s culture, or take a free course on Creating the Ultimate Employee Experience.”

Steffen MaierSteffen Maier is cofounder of Impraise a web-based and mobile solution for actionable, timely feedback at work. Based in New York and Amsterdam, Impraise turns tedious annual performance reviews into an easy process by enabling users to give and receive valuable feedback in real-time and when it’s most helpful. The tool includes an extensive analytics platform to analyze key strengths and predict talent gaps and coaching needs.