What Should You Do When a Staff Member Is Underperforming?

The toughest thing you'll face as a Manager is dealing with an underperformer. You can be too ruthless (sacking first, asking questions later) but you can also be too generous (which your hard-working, super staff will resent). So this week, we've outlined the steps you should be taking to deal with your underperformer; giving them a chance to shine (or to reveal their true colours).

June 20, 2023

As a Manager, the most difficult thing you’ll ever have to deal with is an underperforming employee.

Especially, when they’re a hard-working and friendly person.

The problem is; whether intentionally or not, underperformers bring down morale…

  • Perhaps they’ve got a bad attitude and therefore refuse to put in the effort – which will make other staff members feel undervalued, disadvantaged and unappreciated.
  • Or worse, maybe they’re trying hard, but failing to get the job done, which leaves them feeling negative, stressed and unhappy – feelings which will rub off on other employees.

…it’s a real shame, but it happens all the time in business.

So, how do you deal with these underperformers?

Don’t act rashly.

Don’t fall into the trap of creating a ‘swinging-door policy’ at your workplace; sacking first, asking questions later.

This will only serve to create a negative culture based on fear (a tell-tale sign that you're a bad boss).

There could be many reasons why someone is underperforming and it’s important to take the time to examine each individual situation – you never know, it could be something that’s affecting others too.

Consider… is the employee struggling with a ridiculous workload? Are they falling behind because of a lack of training? Are issues with co-workers affecting their work?

Just because they’re underperforming, doesn’t mean they’re not trying.

Communicate with the underperformer.

I would always recommend that an immediate Line Manager discuss underperformance with the staff member in question – but always in the presence of an HR representative.

A Line Manager is likely to know the employee better, understand the struggles that they’re facing and can therefore have a more honest, frank discussion.

It’s important not to reprimand your underperformer during these initial meetings; this is merely a conversation-starter to make them aware of the issues and gain their opinion on why they could be falling behind.

If you go in all-guns-blazing, your employee will get defensive and will certainly lose respect for you as their manager (you’re supposed to be on their side)!

Listen to what your underperformer has to say.

Think, what can YOU do?

Now on the basis of your initial communication, you should start to assess exactly where the problems lie and what YOU can do to solve them.

Recruiter Pro Tip. Consider this equation - Performance = Knowledge x Ability x Energy - and decide what is lacking in your underperformer. If it’s knowledge or ability, then what training and/or support can you offer your staff member? If it’s energy then what’s causing it? Are they unhappy with something that you have the ability to change, for example, do they feel undervalued? Or have they simply got a bad attitude?

Throughout this process, you should always be thinking of ways you can support your underperformer to do a better job.

Follow up with your underperformer.

Once you have your action plan (for example, sending your staff member on a training course…) you must keep an eye on them to make sure that they are actually improving.

There’s no point waiting till their next review to discover your still at square one.

Agree on a set of achievable targets for your employee to reach over the next few months and meet with them regularly to check progress and to see how they are feeling about everything.

Remember, being seen as an ‘underperformer’ isn’t fun for anyone!

ALWAYS celebrate improvements and successes, no matter how big and small –this will help to engage and motivate your employee.

Know when it’s time to give up.

I’ve already said don’t act rashly… but sometimes, you’ve just got to be cruel to be kind.

If your underperformer doesn’t improve (after you’ve given them a fair chance) and/or you think they might have an attitude problem, then you should formally address their behaviour.

Too often I see managers launch massive efforts to help address an underperforming employee, when the problem is just not fixable in the first place.

Always follow the correct disciplinary procedures and try not to allow hostility into the workplace.

(At this stage, most of your staff will probably know the trouble-makers/negative people anyway!)

It’s a tough job…

…but someone has to do it. And unfortunately if you’re a manager, that someone is YOU.

If there’s one thing I urge you to remember it’s this; every time you sack someone, it will impact the morale of your team, so make sure you’ve tried alternative courses, before making that tough decision.

Your employees are far more likely to respect you, if they know you’ve done everything you can.

Recruiter Pro Tip. Now, before getting to the point of sacking someone, you must have done/tried the following:
  • Given feedback (and made a record of such discussions).
  • Given warnings (and made a record of such warnings).
  • Offered them ways to improve, like training and support.
  • Followed the correct procedures for disciplinary hearings.
You can find more information about this on the gov.uk website.

If you’d like more information on how to motivate and engage your staff and how to deal with things when sh*t hits the fan, click here to sign up to this blog.

Good luck.

Coburg Banks - Multi-Sector Recruitment Agency
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