What to do when an employee is not performing

Have you ever seen a guy walking around with his zipper down? Or a lady with toilet roll stuck to her heels? As embarrassing as it must be for that person, we often feel somewhat embarrassed even to tell them. Is it a one-off mistake? Or is it a reflection of something more profound (e.g., character issue)?

Similarly, when addressing an employee’s performance issue can range from a knowledge/skill gap (that can be taught/resolved) to various possible problems related to not-being-a-good-fit (e.g., working as a team, goal/career alignment, etc.). Telling someone who may think they are doing well, that they are not performing to expectations can be a very uncomfortable conversation. There is a thin line between making a judgment on their abilities versus their character, and it’s often difficult to navigate.

Many factors need to be considered, as they affect employee performance, whether positively or negatively, or in the short-term or long-term. Below is a list of some of the most common factors, including some comments/actions for the manager. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list.

What are the employee’s super-powers? What are the talents, passions, values, and aspirations? Are they able to leverage their strengths on the job/role? Consider an assessment to help identify their top talents/strengths (e.g., Strengths Finder 2.0; others?). Have them sort and prioritize their top values, identifying the key non-negotiable ones. It’s less about a job-fit, and more about a job-alignment. How can they adjust “how” they do their job to better align with their strengths? You can refer to a previous article on “Here’s how to transform your team – fast!” for a more detailed look at this.

Is there clarity in what is expected of the employee? Is there clarity in what is expected of the employer, for the employee to do their jobs effectively? Consider a clear/written job-description, that includes the “what” and the “why,” but gives freedom for the employee to innovate and improve the “how.” Be clear about what/when to help set meaningful and realizable goals. Include any key dependencies with other groups/employees and even the manager. Help manage dependencies to allow the employee to focus on the work, at least initially. There are many excellent principles and applications in “The One Minute Manager” series by Ken Blanchard.

Does the employee have the right qualifications and training for the job? If not, can they be trained? Finding ways to identify and address any training gaps, or speed-up their ramp can be very effective. For example, pairing them up with accessible buddies, or connecting them with capable mentors. Take advantage of any resources available, paying attention to how best they learn. Some do very well with online resources/references, while some prefer traditional classroom-like settings for training, and some learn by doing. One shoe does not fit all, so be mindful and intentional about this.

Does the job/role provide opportunities to stretch/grow the employee? Do they have access to training and conferences in their area of expertise, to sharpen their skills and keep them competitive. Are there related (or even unrelated) areas that the employee wants to learn that still brings value to the organization one way or the other? Can their available bandwidth be modulated to accommodate these growth areas? People tend to stay where they can grow their impact, as this often correlates to the growth in compensation. Consider reading “Mindset: How you can fulfill your potential” by Carol Dweck, or other titles on growth-mindset.

Does the employee feel-at-home amongst the team? Are team-mates working with each other, and not against each other? Are issues identified and addressed quickly, to keep employees focused on goals? What activities can help the team bond better? Is there a diversity of thoughts, ideas, and backgrounds amongst the team members? Are these diverse ideas welcome from everyone in the team (inclusive workplace)? Are commonalities leveraged to help bring about unity and trust, even amongst diverse employees? A better way to grade diversity/inclusiveness in the team is to see if the last few ideas the team has worked on are all from one dominant source? If so, it’s time to promote other voices within the team. Trust me, they all have great ideas, but often many are talked-over, and that has become the status quo.

Are there any life challenges beyond the workplace that are impacting the employee’s ability to be fully engaged at work? These may range from marriage, babies, travel, college, to physical and mental health, addictions, divorce, and maybe even death in the family. Does the employee have a meaningful balance between the various aspects of their life? Are they actively engaged in hobbies and activities outside of work? Are there any red-flags like never taking time-off, or unusual changes in mood? Are there resources available to heal the “whole” person, such as counseling resources? Being open and supportive of the different aspects of the employees’ life frees them up from having to spend energy hiding/compensating for those things, and instead use that energy to be more productive.

Are there any disabilities or perceived limitations? Are all the employee’s relevant abilities being leveraged for the assigned tasks? As a team, can their strengths compensate for any gaps? [its ability that counts]

Most of the factors impacting employee performance that we’ve discussed above focus on the employee. There are also factors to consider that instead focus on the manager, and can equally impact employee performance.

  • Manager bias
  • Manager competence
  • Lack of manager involvement/availability
  • Lack of manager support (ramp/training)

I cannot put enough emphasis on this being a conversation. Saying something to someone, and having them understand what was said, are two different things. Being gentle in how you express the performance issues is important. Taking time to listen to their perspective, and making sure they understand (not just hear) yours is also important. Helping them navigate the options, whatever they may be, is not only good for them but you too. Current team members will look carefully at how you handled this to know if they can feel safe under your leadership.

It should be noted that all the above can be looked at in the context of improving performance, regardless of current performance, thus relevant to both high performing and under-performing employees in a positive manner that is win-win for both employee and employer.

In conclusion, every parent wants their kids to be successful, regardless of where they choose to settle (locally or abroad). If a manager has even an ounce of this same desired outcome for their employees, regardless of whether they later decide to stay in this team or not, then many of the concepts above will become easier to implement. This very well reflects the adage, take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business.

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