How to... manage underperformance

Written by: Alexander Garrett Posted: 31/01/2019

Someone on your team just isn’t pulling their weight. Their colleagues are grumbling and it’s bringing down team performance and morale. Even your customers have noticed this person doesn’t deliver the service they expect. How are you going to turn the situation around? 

Spell out expectations. You can’t blame somebody for underperforming if you didn’t make it clear what you were expecting in the first place. Advice service ACAS says: “There are three aspects to planning an individual’s performance: the objectives the employee is expected to achieve; the competencies or behaviours (the way in which employees work towards those objectives); and personal development (the development employees need to achieve objectives and realise their potential).” Under best practice, each employee should be given an individual performance plan, which is tailored to their own specific circumstances.

Act promptly. Don’t allow the situation to fester. Once you become aware a team member is letting the side down, the quicker you act, the sooner you can stop the issue becoming a drag on the business and damaging morale among other team members. Software specialist Bright HR advises: “An informal chat with your underperforming employee might be all it takes to get them back on track.” Let them know their lack of performance has been noted and try to find out if there’s anything wrong. Give notice that they need to step up their effort. 

Be specific. Making vague comments about performance won’t help them understand what’s wrong or put it right. As management guru Peter Drucker said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Focus on aspects of performance that can be measured, rather than those that are a matter of opinion – feedback scores from customers, for instance, or the revenues they bring in if they’re in a sales role. 

Be prepared to listen. Your underperformer may not be the one to blame. They could have been covering up for a colleague who’s not doing their job properly. Or there could be other reasons, such as IT problems or being provided with the wrong instructions. Give them a chance to explain.

Is there something else? Poor performance at work may be a symptom of something happening outside the office – relationship, money or mental health issues. “Consider how long this team member has been working with your organisation; you may discover they’ve been in the same role for years without any recognition, or they’re victim to isolated bullying or other workplace disagreements,” says Miles Burke, CEO of employee survey firm 6Q.

Offer training. “People underperform because they’ve not been trained to do the job,” says business psychologist Adrian Furnham. “The training has been absent, poor, too quick, too long ago and/or not supported in the workplace. It’s a common problem, particularly where there’s a change in structure, equipment or customer needs.” Underperformance can often be easily cured through putting the person on the right courses, says Furnham. And reinforce that by ensuring you reward the new skills. Coaching is also an option. 

Turn it round. “A great technique is to ask  the underperforming employee how you, as a manager, can help them perform better,” says Burke.  “This may allow them to open up about what they think they need while framing it in general terms.” Talk to them about where they fit into the organisation to give them a sense that they are valued. 

Set new targets. Sit down with the person and agree a new set of objectives. If they understand why these are necessary, they’re more likely to meet them. 

Follow it up. “If your underperformer doesn’t improve after you’ve given them a fair chance, or you think they might have an attitude problem, you should formally address their behaviour,” says Anthony Hughes, co-founder of recruitment consultancy Coburg Banks. Always follow the correct disciplinary procedure – that may mean issuing them with a formal warning.

Reward improvement. If the person’s performance does improve, you must make sure you acknowledge that and find a way to offer a reward – even if it’s a small recognition, such as a ‘wall of fame’. 

Be prepared to fire. If the individual’s performance still doesn’t improve, despite being given the chance to make changes, extra training and other opportunities to up their game – and you don’t believe they ever will – you must be prepared to let them go. But ensure you follow a fair procedure. That means you must: believe the reason is fair; follow the relevant procedures; tell the employee why they are being considered for dismissal; allow them to be accompanied at disciplinary/dismissal hearings; and give them the chance to appeal. Fail on any of these points and you could find your organisation on the losing side in an industrial tribunal. 

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