How to Manage Your Poor Performers

employee performance issues

If there is one thing that every manager has in common, it’s that we’ve all dealt with employee performance issues.  Everyone of us has a Susan, who always does everything right and never seems to make a mistake.  And then, we all have a Michael, who never seems to get it or who never seems to be able to get it together.  We find ourselves spending more time with our Michaels than with our Susans, and it can be exhausting.  Michael’s performance problems never seem to go away and managing him can frustrate us to no end.  Underperforming employees take a lot out of us as managers and they demand extra time and energy of us that we want, and need, to apply elsewhere.

Here are a few examples of employee performance problems that might resonate with you:

  • Repeatedly Missing Commitments
  • Attendance Issues (Showing up Late, Missing Meetings, etc.)
  • Communication Problems
  • Difficulty Working With Others
  • Excessive “Social Hour” at Work
  • Poor Quality of Work
  • Not Paying Attention to Details

If any of these start to increase your blood pressure and make you think of one of your employees, then read on!  Here are 9 tips for managing poor performance.

1.  Make Sure They’re In the Right Role

Before assuming a struggling employee has “performance issues” (the politically correct way for saying they’re not making the cut), one of the first things you should do is ask yourself a simple question: “Is he/she in the right role?”  Before jumping to conclusions when answering this question, take some time to consider the employee’s personality, background and skill set.  Remember the human element.  Even if an employee has had tremendous success in prior positions, there may simply be something about their current role that has pushed them outside their comfort zone to the point where they are ineffective.  If they’re in a developmental assignment, maybe the experiment just didn’t work.  Is there a chance you’ve pushed them a little too far or too fast and you need to dial back their responsibilities?  Make an honest assessment of the situation prior to labeling it as a “poor performance.”

2.  Identify Barriers, Roadblocks and Causes

Though we’d love to view our employees as one-size-fits all, all of whom have the same capabilities and skill sets, it’s just not true.  Bear in mind that performance issues can stem from any number of things, some of which are not really ‘performance’ related.  Everything from the physical work environment, to family matters at home that have nothing to do with work can significantly impact an employee’s ability to deliver results.  As a simple example, perhaps the employee just sits in a location where they are interrupted often by others and their progress on tasks is hindered.

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Particularly if there has not been a history of concern with a given employee’s performance, try to figure out what it is that might have changed, or might have had an impact on the employee’s ability to do his or her job.  As a personal example, one of my employee’s seemed to have some “good weeks” and “bad weeks” for about a year.  Unbeknownst to his colleagues, his father had been battling cancer and undergoing chemotherapy for some time, and the “bad weeks” turned out to coincide with setbacks in the treatment.

The point here is to try to assess what might be happening – is it circumstantial, or performance?

3.  Gather Data and Specifics

Nothing makes managing performance more difficult than when you lack details and specifics.  Just because an employee shows up at 10AM doesn’t mean he or she is coming in late – they may have simply supported early morning meetings from home in order to get their kids ready for school.  Spending time gathering specific details of perceived behaviors and examples of where the employee may be falling short (such as regularly showing up late AND not supporting early morning meetings from home) will help in future conversations you have with that employee.  If you go into a coaching sessions with generalizations and broad observations, both you and the employee will struggle to identify ways to make improvements.

4.  Get Input from Others

No manager, no matter how good they are, can be everywhere.  As such, remember that your employees regularly interact with other managers, business leaders and employees, all of whom can serve as your eyes and ears when you’re not around.  If you have concerns over a given employee’s performance, don’t hesitate to ask for help.  By periodically soliciting input from trusted colleagues, you can gain different perspectives on the employee’s performance as well as insight into their individual tendencies in a variety of settings.  Be sure to gather input from multiple sources so that you can make a balanced assessment.  If seeking input from the employee’s peer, make sure you do so with care so you don’t put either employee in an awkward situation.

Please Answer This Question in Support of our Management Research!


Please describe the tool your organization uses for annual employee performance reviews:
  • An elaborate tool that is thorough and easy to use
  • An elaborate tool that is not user friendly
  • An efficient tool which is easy to use
  • A simple system that is not user friendly
  • No tool. Just a basic MS Word Document, Email, or a Handwritten form
  • We do not do employee reviews

5.  Set Very High Standards

When you have an employee who seemingly does the bare minimum, it may be because they legitimately don’t want to go above and beyond, or wow anyone with their contributions.  But it might also be the result of not feeling challenged and not feeling they need to do much in order to meet the objectives you’ve set for them.  In other words, they do what you ask, but nothing more.  A simple test of this is to load them up and give them a higher workload, almost too much.  Increasing workload can help correct performance issues because it (should) force the employee to improve their efficiency, buckle down, and focus.  Do they rise to the challenge, or continue at the same pace?  Moreover, setting high standards tends for drive a ‘sink or swim’ behavior.  If the employee rises to the challenge, perhaps their performance issues are the result of boredom or simply not feeling challenged.  If they struggle, the performance issues are probably real.

RELATED: 5 Things You Can Do TODAY to be a Better Boss

As a personal example, a former manager who reported to me had a tendency to set low, un-challenging expectations for her employees.  While her direct staff loved working for her, there was a general lack of urgency among her employees, and a trend of missed commitments by her team.

6.  Be Real with Feedback

If you are sure your observations are truly employee performance related, any further action needs to start with feedback.  No need to jump out of the gate swinging with excessively critical feedback, but an honest conversation about your observations or concerns is warranted.  Start by asking the employee how things are going and if they have any issues or challenges they’re facing.  The key to holding effective feedback sessions is to get the employee to speak first and to have them share their perspective of how they are doing before you share any concerns or observations.  Steer the dialog by asking questions that broach the topic of performance.

RELATED: Coaching Employees Through Questions

Always remember to hold feedback sessions in private – doing so in public will never be received well by the employee, or by those in the area.  Plus, by holding coaching sessions in private, you are more likely to get the employee to open up and talk about any issues or concerns they have that may be impacting their ability to deliver results.

GET OUR FREE DOWNLOADS: One On One Coaching Guide and Templates HERE

7.  Take Time to Set Very Specific Expectations

More than likely, your top performers need very little direction.  Of course, from time to time they may need guidance and support.  But in general, high performers know what to work on and know where they should be spending time, even without you telling them.

By contrast, we spend a lot of our time managing our lower performers.  We often need to verify they’re working on the right things and to make sure they’re going to meet an upcoming deadline.  For these reasons, spend time setting very clear expectations with your more difficult employees.  Clearly documenting individual goals and expectations of the employee help both you and employee set the stage for a follow-up conversation as you check on progress.  The more specific you get in terms of things like dates, timelines and quality standards of their work reduce and eliminate any ambiguity.

8.  Follow Up Frequently

If there is one thing that will send a clear message to an employee that their performance is a concern, it is your frequent follow-ups to check on status.  For example, if you give them a deadline of Wednesday to complete a report, be sure to follow-up with your employee on Wednesday.  Don’t wail until Thursday or the next week to make sure the report went out.  By following up and checking up on commitments, it shows you mean business and drives accountability.  By contrast, if you set expectations, but do not follow-up, the employee may not feel there is a need to change their behavior.

9.  Formally Document Concerns

When your efforts to assess performance gaps and motivate employees to improve don’t get the results you’re looking for, it’s time to start documenting performance issues.  Unlike the result of violating company policy or misconduct, terminating employees simply due to performance can be difficult because it often requires a significant amount documentation.  If you’re at the point where things just aren’t improving, it may be time to capture everything in a formal letter of concern to the employee.  The details and specifics that serve as the foundation for your concern need to be clear.

RELATED: How to Motivate Employees in Tough Times




Looking for More? Check Out:

7 Ways to Boost Morale

Dealing with the Office Scrooge

8 Ways to Reduce Office Tension


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