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Managing the Underperformer

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: I have an employee who used to be a top performer, but lately she is missing deadlines and her work is sloppy, if completed at all. I know her coworkers are picking up the slack. It’s like this employee has retired on the job, but she is a long way from retirement age. I’ve tried different motivational techniques with little success. Any ideas?

 A: You say you’ve tried motivating her, but have you had a frank discussion with her? Does she know that she is underperforming? Have you told her the consequences of not meeting your expectations?

I know most of us avoid difficult conversations like the plague, but this is one you can’t ignore. You need to clearly articulate exactly what she needs to be doing, set precise benchmarks and timelines, and accurately document the process.

In this conversation, you’ll also want to hear her side of the story. Ask her why she hasn’t been meeting expectations. Maybe  her job duties aren’t clear to her, or perhaps she is having problems with coworkers you aren’t aware of. Listen, but don’t accept excuses for poor performance, and let her know she has your support if her work improves.

You need to clearly articulate exactly what it is the employee needs to be doing, set precise benchmarks and timelines, and accurately document the process.

After the meeting, summarize the discussion in writing, including the benchmarks and the timeline. Send the summary to her so you both are operating under the same guidelines. Follow up often to ensure that she is meeting the milestones you agreed to.

If her performance doesn’t improve based on the benchmarks, follow your organization’s progressive discipline policy. In most cases, that is a three-step process, starting with warnings and ending, if necessary, with termination.

Hopefully, your employee will respond and return to her top-performer status—but if not, don’t let this situation continue until it begins to affect others in your department. Good performers want to work with other good performers, and your credibility as a manager will suffer if you continue to tolerate an underperforming team member.

Don’t make the mistake of trying to make her job miserable so she’ll quit—that usually doesn’t work. Set clear expectations, follow up, and provide support as needed. If that doesn’t result in improved performance, follow your organization’s progressive discipline policy and terminate if necessary.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].


Performance Management