How to Deal with an Underperforming Employee (without Making It Awkward)

I once had a crackerjack team working on a tough project. Or rather, I should say, I had seven-eighths of a crackerjack team. One team member, Zackery, was on the project when I acquired it, so I acquired him as part of the package. Zackery was eager to contribute and worked to the best of his ability. Unfortunately, his ability fell short of what the project needed, and the politics and policies of the company prevented me from transferring or terminating him. Fortunately, as the project evolved, there were more and more tasks that were routine and repetitive, and they became his responsibility.

But sometimes there are things you can do in this sort of situation in addition to (or instead of) assigning grunt work. For example, you can talk with such underperformers, making sure they know what’s expected of them, what kind of improvements you’re seeking, and how you’ll follow up to gauge the status of those improvements.

Letting underperforming employees know what’s expected of them is no simplistic matter. Doing it right means being direct; no hemming and hawing and beating around the bush. It means offering tangible information about where the performance is lacking and what needs to happen, in clear measurable terms, to demonstrate improvement. It’s advisable to keep a log of both the person’s performance and the steps you’re taking to effect change. That way, in the event you need to take formal action, you’ve got the documentation to back you up.

In guiding the employee, don’t assume that underperformance is a sign of sloppiness, laziness, or lack of motivation. That could prove to be the case, but it may also be that no one has ever given the person helpful feedback about what’s going wrong and what has to change. With explicit guidance and coaching, the person may be able to do better. If not, there’s always the chance he or she will conclude this isn’t the right job and choose to look elsewhere. Zackery eventually found another job that was a better fit.

Then again, I once had another employee, also acquired, who was a do-anything-for-anyone sort with a strong work ethic. He just wasn’t cut out for technical work, and he knew it. We discussed his seeking work elsewhere and he agreed it was a good idea.

Sometimes, employees are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, and they can tell whether they’re suited for their current positions. Sometimes, however, they may need a rude awakening. Either way, it’s important that you have a frank and honest discussion with these employees and let them know what’s expected. With any luck (and some effort on both your parts), they can improve and become outstanding contributors to the team.

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