“Since my last report, this employee has reached rock bottom and has started to dig.”
“This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.”
“Works well when under constant supervision and cornered like a rat in a trap.”
—Alleged Quotes from Performance Evaluations
Performance evaluations such as these, true or not, always draw laughs, chiefly because we know these people. For all that’s written about stupid bosses, we’d be remiss if we didn’t address the issues of poorly performing employees, too. In fact, some employee misbehavior is what drives once-well-intended bosses around the bend.
The challenge for managers is what to do with under performers. It’s easiest to ignore them and in fact that’s what usually happens. Again and again in large organizations, peak efficiency is undermined because companies retain people who are clearly not doing their jobs. One reason under performers hang on is because their supervisors fear confrontation. Other times, the employee has a connection to an executive in high places. But ignoring the problem is not bliss; it’s stupidity, one that undermines the integrity of the organization.
Here are three things you can do with an under performer:
Converse. Before you address the issue of under performance, you need to find out what’s going on in the employee’s life. Personal problems such as a sick child, a pending divorce or an ailing parent will distract an employee from devoting full attention to work. If there is such a problem, and the employee has a history of good performance, find a way to work around the issue. Those employees are worth saving.
Coach. Keep in mind that often employees under perform because they lack the necessary tools and or training. It’s the manager’s job to provide on-the-job coaching. The process is very straightforward. Discuss the issue so that the employee understands where he’s falling short. Ask him to devise solutions for improvement. Talk about those solutions and agree on a timetable for improvement. And always hold the person accountable by following up.
Can. If there’s no improvement (and outside issues are not relevant), then you must come to the conclusion that the individual is not right for the job. He or she should be encouraged to find another position for which he or she may be more qualified. (Note: don’t pawn an under performer off on another department; that simply kicks the issue over to another boss.)
The first two options are relatively easy, but terminating an individual is not. Tread carefully and work in sync with your human resources department. Otherwise you could find yourself on the wrong end of lawsuit. While it’s never easy confronting individuals about poor performance, tolerating it is a failure of leadership.
First posted on HBR.org 9/10/2008