CultureHuman ResourcesTalent Management

How to Handle an Underperforming Employee

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Most humans like to avoid conflict as often as possible, especially in the workplace. More often than not, conflict brings an increase in stress to all parties involved. Because the workplace already tends to be a source of significant stress, managers and workers alike tend to steer clear of most actions that will ruffle any feathers.

Unfortunately, managers cannot always avoid conflict. When an employee is underperforming, it is vital that managers address the underperformance — even though doing so will almost certainly result in conflict. Fortunately, there are ways to manage underperforming employees constructively to benefit both workers and the organization at large. Here are some tips for mitigating conflict and boosting employee performance:

Understand Underperformance

First, business leaders need to recognize that the term “underperformance” should not be used as a catch-all for any behaviors they find unsatisfactory. An employee who dresses casually and uses slang might still manage to perform their job to expectations or beyond; likewise, a worker who comes in early, leaves late and clocks in on weekends might be a terrible underperformer. Underperformance relates specifically to the productivity of an employee and the quality of their work.

An employee might underperform for a variety of reasons. They might not have the knowledge and skills necessary to complete their assigned tasks. They might not understand how their role fits into the rest of the organization, so they might focus on the wrong aspects of their job. They might have problems at home that are affecting how they perform at work. Worst of all, they might have become dissatisfied with their job and disengaged with their work, possibly as a result of improper management.

Recognizing that there is an issue with underperformance is the first and most important step to rectifying it. Once a business leader sees the signs of underperformance, they can begin to address the problem with the help of the underperforming employee.

Communicate With the Employee

Business leaders should never assume that they know why an employee is underperforming before they have a conversation with that employee. Sometimes, employees are able to provide a reasonable explanation for recent low performance that should make it clear that underperformance is merely temporary; for example, a newborn keeping the worker up at night or a particularly persnickety client are both short-term issues that should resolve on their own in time. Then again, an employee might not have realized that they were underperforming, and merely drawing their attention to their performance could be enough to get them back into gear.

Regardless, business leaders need to understand that this communication should go both ways. Listening to employees is a good way for managers to understand the employee’s perspective and gain insights into how to motivate them to perform better into the future. Even during performance reviews, feedback is just as important to receive as to give, so business leaders should remain open to hearing what their workforce has to say.

Set the Right Expectations

Often, employees are underperforming because their own expectations do not align with the expectations of their managers. During the onboarding process and after any organizational change, business leaders need to be clear about the specific expectations they have for their workers. Likewise, leaders should absorb the expectations the workforce has for their employer, which are just as important for maintaining engagement and morale. Businesses should strive to keep the performance management process transparent, so no one can use confusion about expectations as an excuse to underperform.

Work Together on an Action Plan

Once both manager and worker understand the issue and cause of ongoing underperformance, they must work together toward resolution. If the reason behind the underperformance is not temporary, it might be necessary for managers to modify how employees manage their workload. For example, it could be worthwhile to shift an employee into a new role that they are more suited for given their current skills; then again, managers can invest in employees by training them with the skills they need to thrive. Any performance-related action plan should include timelines as well as consequences for underperformance in the future.

Generally, it is not advisable to punish an employee for underperformance stemming from personal issues. Managers should instead encourage the employee to take time off to address these concerns if their underperformance is seriously hindering the success of the business.

Employees and employers should put their action plan into motion and track the results. Likely, the worker’s performance will improve — and leaders should celebrate their progress accordingly. However, if underperformance continues, it might be necessary to consider that the worker is not suited to their role within this organization.

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Annie is a passionate writer and serial entrepreneur. She embraces ecommerce opportunities that go beyond profit, giving back to non-profits with a portion of the revenue she generates. She is significantly more productive when she has a cause that reaches beyond her pocketbook.