Posted on Jun 7, 2017

7It’s easy to spot underperformance, but correcting it is a different matter. The fact is, effectively managing your workforce, especially problem employees, just doesn’t come naturally to most people. Here’s some guidance to potentially help turn around an employee who is missing the performance mark.

Tackling the Problem

When an employee is underperforming, begin the performance management process with these two steps:

  1. Clearly define the nature and degree of the underperformance.
  2. Determine whether you’ve done the best job possible in helping the employee to be successful. For example, is the employee aware that you consider his or her work subpar? Have you put it in writing as well as had discussions with the employee?

Staff members who aren’t sure whether they’re on the right track often wait for feedback, rather than proactively seeking guidance. That means you need to act at the first sign an employee isn’t meeting expectations, rather than hoping the situation will remedy itself.

If the individual has worked under other supervisors in previous jobs within the company, a quick meeting could be productive, before talking with the employee. Describe the issues you’re having, and ask the previous supervisor whether the same type of problems were present in the past. If the answer is “no,” that may help set the agenda for your discussion with the worker. The conversation might proceed along these lines:

  1. Clearly and specifically state your performance concerns. For example, in a manufacturing plant, you may need to advise an employee that he or she is habitually falling below the daily production goal.
  2. Let the employee know that your objective is to work together to find a solution.
  3. After discussing the specific performance issues, ask how you can help the employee turn around the situation, with some possible suggestions in mind. There may be issues you aren’t aware of, such as tools that are in disrepair or missing, or poor lighting in the employee’s workspace. So be open to his or her input.
  4. Provide the employee with any written materials you may have — or can put together — about the employee’s tasks and expectations. For example, are there manuals, guides and checklists about how to do the job properly?

If the employee attributes the performance concerns to lack of clarity about expectations, or an inability to prioritize tasks, the remedy might be as simple as regular monthly, weekly or even more frequent meetings to go over what needs to be accomplished before the next meeting.

The discussion could also reveal that the employee, while generally qualified for the position, needs some training to fulfill all the requirements of the job.

Accepting Criticism

How well the worker responds to the initial part of the performance discussion will influence how you wrap it up. If he or she is concerned, cooperative and motivated to improve, you can end with the remedial plan you devise. If, instead, the employee is defensive and unrepentant, giving no indication of a willingness to change, it may be time to describe the consequences of a lack of improvement.

The outcome of the meeting needs to be a concrete and detailed performance improvement plan with milestones. The plan itself may be as simple as a schedule for check-ins and progress assessment meetings.

Job Descriptions

To determine the milestones, go back to the written job description to see if it’s clear enough. Depending on the job, measuring progress may be easy, such as by seeking a higher output rate for a standard unit of product or service. Of course, it’s not always that easy, and it may require some serious thought. Whatever you decide, don’t leave this unaddressed. It’s not enough to say “I’ll know good performance when I see it.”

The clearer the job description, the easier it is to hold employees accountable for specific performance metrics. Take a look to see if it provides a framework you can use for measuring progress. If it doesn’t, it should be revised. An example of a metric for progress that’s harder to measure — let’s say, for an office assistant –— might be something like this: Within the first 90 days of employment, complete cross-training with the receptionist so you can efficiently fill that position as needed.

Follow-up discussions to look at performance improvement should be just that — discussions, not lectures. Before offering your assessments, seek the employee’s own opinion of his or her progress. You may see more improvement than the employee does, and that can give you an opportunity to encourage him or her with a little praise.

The worst mistake you can make in an employee turnaround effort is to lay out a detailed remediation plan, then neglect to follow up and review progress with the employee. That’s especially true if you promise adverse consequences for a lack of improvement and then nothing happens. Failing to follow up wastes everyone’s time, and the employee may either conclude you weren’t serious to begin with, or that he or she has improved enough.

When Your Best Efforts Fail

Doing all the right things to try to turn an underperforming employee into a valued worker is no guarantee of success, of course. After you’ve given it your best shot, you may decide the employee just isn’t right for his or her current role. Is there another area in the company that seems like a better fit? If so, explore the possibilities with other managers and then with the worker.

If the employee simply isn’t salvageable to work for your company at all, act promptly. The former employee will probably be better off finding a job that’s more suitable to his or her skills and interests. And in the end, your workforce will likely benefit by higher production and improved morale. Be sure to document all of the steps you took to try and turn the situation around, and consider consulting legal counsel to ensure you’re in compliance with all applicable laws.