How to deal with underperforming employees

Dealing with an employee whose performance isn’t up to scratch is a challenge most managers will have to face at some point in their career. Thankfully, very few resort to the rather extreme action taken by one boss in East China’s Jiangsu Province, who doused his employee with a five-litre bottle of water, in front of assembled colleagues, as punishment for failing to meet his sales targets.

While this kind of sanction is definitely a step too far, finding the best way to tackle staff about below par performance can be a real challenge. It’s a task that managers often shy away from, either because they don’t want to upset someone, or because they are worried about getting into some kind of confrontation.

Pushing poor performance under the carpet, however, is not an option. If employees are left unchallenged, they are unlikely to change their behaviour. And when co-workers become increasingly resentful of their colleague’s ability to ‘get away with it,’ they may even start to take their foot off the gas themselves.

So what can you as a manager do to overcome the fear of giving negative feedback and nip poor performance in the bud?

1. Get to the root of the issue

Poor performance is not always what it seems. Often there is a reason why someone is making frequent mistakes or just doesn’t seem to be making an effort anymore. Dig deep to find out what’s at the root of the issue.

Is the employee overwhelmed with work and having trouble prioritising? Has a shift in their role left them exposed and needing more training to cope with new responsibilities? Or maybe they have just become bored and disillusioned in their role?

Of course, people may also be struggling with personal issues, such as illness or a heavy caring responsibility,  which is affecting their ability to focus. If you know what is causing the issue, you will be better equipped to deal with it.

2. Prepare for the conversation

Delivering negative feedback is never going to be easy, but a bit of preparation will help to ensure a more meaningful and productive dialogue.

Choose your time carefully – preferably not in the heat of the moment when you are angry or upset about a project that’s gone off the rails or the way someone has dealt with a client. This doesn’t mean delaying the conversation until the next formal appraisal, by which time the employee will probably have forgotten about the incident altogether.

It is important to give feedback soon after the event; just wait until you have had a chance to calm down and think rationally about what you want to say. Be clear about the key messages you want to get across and what you want to be done differently next time, and give some thought to how the person is likely to react and how you will handle it.

3. Clarify expectations

There will always be people who don’t take the job seriously and try to get away with doing as little as possible. But most employees don’t set out deliberately to do a bad job. Often, poor performance arises because people are ‘fuzzy’ about their role and unsure exactly what is expected of them.

Make sure an employee who is not performing is crystal clear about the boundaries of their role; for example, when they are expected to be available for meetings, who do they have to answer to, what level of autonomy do they have to make decisions?

Clear objectives, if relevant with targets and timelines, will also help people understand how to make the best use of their time and what they need to prioritise. Review objectives regularly to make sure they are fit for purpose if business priorities change. If there is no scope for misunderstanding, people will be focusing their efforts in the right direction and there is fewer likelihood problems will occur.

4. Feedback on behaviour, not personality

It would be lovely if our working lives were full of people we liked, respected and enjoyed spending time with. The reality, however, is that there is always going to be someone in the team who presses our buttons, winds us up and who we would really rather not have to deal with.

If your under-performing employee falls into this category, make sure you are separating the behaviour from the person. Take a step back and make sure you are not criticising someone’s performance just because you don’t like them. Separate facts from feelings and give clear examples of work that hasn’t been completed to standard or situations that should have been handled differently. Accept that not everyone will go about a task in exactly the same way as you and that sometimes, that is OK.

5. Plan ahead

The key to turning turning poor performance around is a clear plan of action that’s put together and agreed on by both parties. Identify any training that may be needed and get it booked. Schedule informal catch-ups every couple of weeks so you can assess, progress and deal with any barriers that may have arisen.

Make sure the employee knows you actively want them to succeed and that they have your full support in bringing their skills up to scratch and dealing with any difficulties they may be facing. Equally, make sure people know that there will be consequences if, despite your support, they fail to pull their socks up. Familiarise yourself with your company’s disciplinary procedure – and employment law – and don’t be afraid to escalate the issue if necessary.

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