An underperforming employee can bring down the morale of the whole team. They soak up management time, lower productivity and can harm the business reputation with customers. Despite this, underperformance is often not tackled and is left to get worse.
The first thing you really need to know, underperformance will not resolve itself. You will need to have a conversation with them, but how?
Define Expected Performance
If you cannot be clear on what expected performance looks like, tackling underperformance is almost impossible. How can you even know someone is underperforming if you can’t define good performance? How can they meet your expectations if you’re not clear about them?
Expectations should be clearly measurable, allowing both you and your team to know what they are aiming towards. They may also be accompanied by quality expectations. As an example, you may have financial sales targets which are accompanied by expected sales behaviours that match your company culture and desired customer experience.
Define Underperformance - Be Specific
Once you’ve defined expected performance, seeing and articulating underperformance becomes so much easier. You can be specific, clearly showing the expectation was X and they achieved Y.
It is important to be able to objectively define current performance levels before attempting any type of conversation. Check your data, review it against others as well as against expectations.
Have a Conversation - Outline their performance against expectations
Underperformance cannot be tackled without a conversation and this should be by the person with direct line management responsibility. If the two steps above have been done in preparation, then this step is a lot easier.
Avoid getting into emotive or subjective language in that discussion. Use specific examples, explain what is expected and what the individual is doing in reality.
Avoid terms like lazy, unmotivated - these are subjective and prompt the response “I’m not lazy”. If you can say, “You didn’t reply to client A within the target timeframe” or “You submitted the report to the board 2 days later than it was required” - these are facts, and disputes around the accuracy of the facts should be easily resolved.
Ask Why - From their Perspective
Once you have outlined the concern regarding their performance, ask why. Listen, and consider carefully their response.
It is possible to answer the question ‘why’ with lots of words and little information so you may need to listen very carefully to understand the real why.
The answer to why provides crucial information to creating the next steps. Do they need additional training? Do they have the information, equipment and resources required to achieve expected performance? Is there something going on outside of work that might be impacting performance?
Tell Them What You Expect Following the Conversation
If you don’t make it clear what is expected next, you’ll have wasted your time with the conversation. Exactly what this step looks like will depend on how the conversation went, who the individual is and their ‘why’.
Ideally, the individual will already have some understanding of the underperformance, will have recognised it during the conversation and when you were discussing the ‘why’, it was with a focus on “how can we resolve this” - the next steps will fall out of this conversation naturally.
On many occasions it doesn’t go like that. It’s still beneficial to ask the individual to put forward what they think the next steps should be as they will be far more committed if they have come up with them. However, you may also need to be clear about your expectations, what improvement you need to see and by when. That may need to be accompanied by a discussion about formal warnings for poor performance if the problem continues.
Don’t Delay Speaking to Them
The final tip - don’t delay. It may be quicker to just do it yourself rather than try to support the individual. It may be a tough conversation you’d rather not have.
Failing to have the conversation won’t make it go away, in fact it’s likely to only get worse. The longer poor performance persists, the harder it will be to deal with it.
Nip things in the bud early and you’ll have far less problems with underperformance. Ensure everyone knows what is expected and there are regular conversations about how individuals and the organisation as a whole are doing against targets. This will help motivate and keep people on track as well as spotting any performance issues early.
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Article last updated: 31 March 2021
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