How to Manage an Underperformer

Martin was late again. Leanne, his manager, was frustrated at his recent lack of productivity. Not only was he often late these days, but when he did show up, he was preoccupied with family issues. His tardiness and personal issues were creating drama and dragging down the morale of the whole team. Leanne was pretty sure Martin was exaggerating about how many hours he claimed to be working remotely from home, too. She could be sympathetic about a family problem, but being lied to was another matter. The hardest part was, Martin had been a top performer up until a few months ago. Leanne knew she needed to confront Martin but wasn’t even sure where to begin.

Do you have an underperforming employee who is sucking your company dry and dragging down the morale of your team? As we’ve recently discussed, underperformance can usually be attributed to a poor fit with the job, the manager, or the company’s culture. But contributing to that poor fit may be a lack of training, skills, or interest, not to mention a poor work ethic or personal problems. How can you identify the problem, and what can you do to address it?

Jennine Heller of offers a sound prescription: First, take a look at what is under your control. Then examine what areas are within your employee’s control. Employing Heller’s approach, let’s use Martin’s story above to analyze what isn’t working:

What’s in your control: Have you clearly defined Martin’s role and your expectations and metrics? Have you given him regular feedback on his performance? Have you protected him from interruptions, distractions, and unreasonable demands? How is company morale? Have you provided a stable infrastructure, open communication, and rewards and recognition? Have you given Martin the resources, tools, training, mentoring, and personal support he needs?

What’s in your employee’s control: How able is Martin to actually perform the work? Does he take pride in the quality of his work? How is his initiative and attitude? What stresses, motivates, or discourages him? Is this job helping him further his career goals?

Once you’ve assessed these two aspects, you’ll need to decide how to manage an underperformer. Heller outlines three options:

1. Manage Towards Improvement–If you think Martin can improve with your support and his extra effort, create a performance improvement plan. (We recommend the SMART goal format, especially if the root problem is a poor work ethic.) In the event that you do learn of a personal problem, writer Karen Childress advises a little compassion:

“…Gently ask if there is something bothering them. Don’t pry into their personal affairs — just inquire in a manner that demonstrates that you’ve noticed they’ve been distracted recently and you are concerned. If you find out a personal situation is temporary (e.g., a teenager going through a rough spot), cut them some slack and assume everything will return to normal in due time. If you discover that the personal issue is more challenging and potentially long-term, offer whatever is feasible, such as temporarily reduced hours, some time off or a referral to the employee assistance program or outside agency or group that might be supportive.”

2. Reassign–Maybe Martin is a great employee but is simply in the wrong role. Is there another place in your organization where he could make a better contribution? If so, ensure alignment of his career goals and your needs, then clearly communicate new goals.

3. Let Go–If you’ve clearly communicated and attempted to improve Martin’s performance to no avail, and there is no logical place within the company for him to move, then let him go. Firing an employee is almost always difficult. (In our example, though, Martin was also suspected of cheating on his timecard, so that makes it a little easier.)

However, says Childress, if the underperformance turns out to be due to lack of interest, it may be easier to frame the dismissal in terms of giving the employee permission to consider other career options. “This doesn’t mean handing him a pink slip but, rather, opening up the possibility for him to look around to see what else might be out there while continuing to work,” albeit temporarily, unless the individual’s performance is negatively impacting the organization.

For the financial health and morale of your organization, you must address the problem of how to manage an underperformer. Using the approach given above makes it easier to assess whether the root cause lies with you and/or with your employee. Once you’ve identified the problem, it’s just a matter of deciding whether to help them improve, reassign them, or return them to the labor market with your best wishes.

Click here or call (714) 993-1900 to request an employee or discuss a workforce management issue.

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