Managing underperformance

Is someone on your team not pulling their weight? Are you at a loss as how best to handle it? You wouldn’t be alone; managing under performance can be a sensitive issue.

There are, however, a number effective ways of tackling the problem – without necessarily resorting to drastic action. Under performance comes in many guises, and there is of course no single solution, but there is a process that needs to be followed:

1. Establish the cause of the problem

Your first step is to determine the cause. It may be an individual member of staff who is underperforming, or it may be a departmental or companywide issue that needs addressing. It could be that the underperforming person is simply out of their depth or not suited to the role. If a previously productive member of staff begins to underperform, they may be experiencing problems in their personal life – such as divorce, bereavement or money worries. Be sensitive.

2. Communicate

Begin by speaking with the employee. It can be easy to jump to conclusions and put poor performance down to laziness or cynicism. But while some employees may be determined to avoid doing their fair share of work, it is the exception rather than the norm. There is usually an underlying cause.

Before reproaching an employee, explain clearly and calmly your concerns and ask them if there is anything you can do to help. Without being intrusive, attempt to get to the root of what is wrong and consider how best to respond.

Listen carefully to the employee’s answer and discuss a strategy for dealing with the problem. For example, it could be a workload issue. If the role involves meeting performance targets, consider whether these are realistic.

3. Agree a strategy to address the problem

Agree a way forward with the employee and set a date to review their continuing performance. If you don’t have a formal performance management process in place already, consider introducing one. Are there any immediate steps you can take to address the issue, such as resolving disputes among staff members, or making changes to working practices or conditions? Sometimes all it needs is a straightforward readjustment. But this means taking decisive action. Never ignore a problem in the hope that it will resolve itself – in most cases it won’t. Whatever action you take, it is vital that you provide structured feedback to the employee at regular intervals.

Performance is a shared responsibility. If poor performance is endemic in an organisation, there is strong likelihood that it is a management issue rather than a failing of the general workforce. Sometimes this can be resolved by pinpointing the issue and addressing it head-on; in some cases it may even require a root and branch overhaul of how the business is run. Make sure that adequate training exists so that people feel confident about doing their job. Ensure that all employees are adequately supported and incentivised in their role and, where appropriate, acknowledge and / or reward improvements in performance.

4. Taking formal action

If someone continues to underperform, it may be necessary to take formal action.

This lets the employee know that you are serious about addressing the problem.

Arrange a formal confidential meeting to discuss the matter. Keep a written record of all conversations you have with the employee about the issue, and contact them in writing before and after all meetings. All such communications should be kept for reference.

If, despite continued support and repeated warnings, you feel you have no alternative but to dismiss an employee, it is important that you follow the correct disciplinary process.

This involves contacting the employee formally in writing to outline the issue and invite them to a disciplinary hearing. They have the right to be accompanied at the meeting, and must also be given an opportunity to state their case before any decision is made.

Following the meeting, you should write to the employee informing them of your decision and offering them an opportunity to appeal. No manager likes to dismiss an employee, and this route should only be taken as a last resort. But if an employee continues to underperform it can have a detrimental effect on their colleagues, and ultimately the business itself. We must always remind ourselves that our first responsibility as managers and employers is to the greater good of the team.

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