Underperformance – The Elephant in the Room

When it is time to analyse your staff performance, three questions demand an answer.

  • Which employees were above the standard performance and should be promoted or deserve a bigger bonus?
  • Which employees had a standard performance and deserved the standard bonus as well?
  • Which employees were below standard and deserved an action plan?

Unfortunately, some companies don’t give much thought to this process. And in those, hearing statements, without much justification, like “I think you deserve to be on the top list” or “I think you performed OK this year”, is a great possibility. It is also common to pull an underperforming employee into those “just OK” groups. It is challenging to stress where the employee could improve when everything is kept very subjective, “I think you could push a little hard next time, but it was OK.”

Indeed it can be the most subjective, awkward and unfair process. No doubt, it is one of the reasons for employee disengagement.

But I will not delve into how the process of analysing your staff performance may or may not be, nor how many times a year you should review it.

I will assume you have a good and honest process in place, and it is easy to distinguish the ones that are overperforming from those underperforming.

Underperforming staff can jeopardise the entire team’s performance. I’m more interested in focusing on this last group and how to coach them back.

It is a situation we should not hide under the rug. Recognise the problem. Your employee may not be aware of its underperformance. Were the goals, deadlines and tasks clear? Are the expectations and assumptions crystal clear? Try to understand what is the main reason for the underperformance. Is it the workload? Lack of training? Any personal factor in your employee’s life?

The duration of the underperformance is also data to consider. For how long is the situation going?

For the sake of this post, I’m assuming that the underperformance is going for a long stretch. You need to consider the seriousness of the situation. And your employee too.

It would be best to outline your concerns, expectations, and the situation’s impact on the team and the overall organisation. Schedule a meeting to discuss it. However, if the employee previously was performing well, don’t stress too much about the negative. Your concern should switch to understanding what the trigger for the drop was. Your intent is foremost to help your employee to recover from this setback.

Assuming you two have clarified the organisation’s expectations for the role – let us call it “point B”. And you two agreed about what is causing the underperformance – the “point A”. It is time to ask your employee about a game plan. It is vital to engage your employee in the action plan’s conception. It should be a mutually-agreeable solution.

Careful, many managers think their work is finished at this moment. The truth is, you are just in the beginning. 

You need to follow up, assess and review how your employee is doing on his action plan. This revisiting process should have milestones and a strict deadline. Your employee needs to know without any doubt about the entire program – action plan, follow up sessions, deadline and what is at stake.

I like to have formal follow-up sessions. I believe it is good to provide feedback. Your employee needs to know if they are going into success or if additional steering is required.

Throughout the entire process, keep a written log. It might come in handy in the future.

However, two results can occur after the entire process. 

Always having success in mind, we should be ready for the event of this “contract” failure. There should be no doubts about the outcome. I remind you that you previously addressed what is at stake. 

I can not stress enough the importance of your intention. You want your employee to succeed. Bear that in mind. Therefore, I challenge you with an additional question – “Can your employee succeed in another team or with a different role?”

While you are thinking about how to answer that one, I want you to juggle with another thought. In the end, it is not about the person per se. It is always about the team’s performance and the organisation’s performance.

And, in the end, if you still want to vouch for the employee, help them land another gig.

Hopefully, everything unfolded in a clear, transparent, and humane way. And there is nothing wrong if your need to “share your employee with the competition”.

Yours truly,

Ricardo Castelhano