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Dealing with underperforming employees

Keeping workers engaged is key to a company.

Keeping workers engaged is key to a company. Sometimes it's a lack of communication and setting clear goals that makes their performance subpar. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/SIphotography

Dealing with underperforming employees can be frustrating for managers and cause resentment within an organization, but those workers are not always a lost cause.

In fact, sometimes it’s a lack of communication and setting clear goals that makes their performance subpar.

“The most common approach managers take in dealing with performance issues is avoiding them, and that’s the worst thing they can do,” says Marty Brounstein, an  executive coach in California and author of "Coaching & Mentoring For Dummies" (For Dummies; $21.99). “The problem only gets worse.”

The second most common approach is to come down really hard on the employee with some form of punitive action such as as a disciplinary warning or threat of termination.  This approach creates greater tension and bitterness rather than improved performance, he says.

Neither approach is helpful in getting performance issues fixed.

Instead, the manager should have an honest discussion with the employee and work toward a collaborative problem-solving approach, says Brounstein.

Be honest with the employee about  where performance is falling short and work to develop a plan together to work toward improvement, says Brounstein. Ask the employee what things  he or she thinks  can be done to meet job expectations and what  he or she needs from the manager in  the way of support, he says.

Keep in mind it’s not always solely the employee's fault for performance issues.

“I would say that most performance issues come from a lack of clarity of expectations,” says Joseph Weintraub, an organizational psychologist and a professor of management at Babson College in Massachusetts.

With his clients, he recommends doing an exercise where the employee and immediate boss separately write down the three most important things  the worker is getting paid for. Weintraub then brings them together to compare the list, and he finds that most of the time only one out of three job tasks or roles on their  lists will match.

Oftentimes,  it's a matter of perception, he says, so agreement on expectations is key.

Sometimes the manager may be contributing to the employee’s underperformance without even realizing it.

“As a manager you need to objectively look at your management style and be willing to hear if something you’re doing is preventing someone from being their best,” says Janine Nicole Truitt, chief innovations officer at Talent Think Innovations, a business strategy consultancy in Port Jefferson Station.

But if the issue truly does lie with the employee, she says, you can always put  the person on a performance plan that would spell out  what needs to be improved and over what period of time.

“Make it clear to  [employees] they should come to you along the way if there are issues that impede that plan,” says Truitt.

 Keep working toward improvement, she adds,  and reserve firing  only for actions  that are harmful or egregious in nature.

Still,  you want to see a willingness to improve performance or face the consequences.

For example, if you put them on a three-month plan and say after one month they haven’t done anything, be prepared to let them go, says Jacquelyn Gernaey, CEO of SevenStar HR, an outsourced human resources firm in Port Jefferson.

You want to give them the opportunity to improve and achieve their goals, but if they don’t work toward improvement, then you shouldn’t be remiss about terminating them, she says.

If you don’t, it sends a bad signal to employees who are working hard and meeting performance expectations, says Gernaey.

A-level employees want to work with other A-level employees, she says. If they see people falling short and nothing being done about it, they may lose interest in staying with the organization or grow resentful.

Fast Fact:

Eighty-five percent of employees are functioning below their potential — in terms of both their value to employers and the sense of fulfillment they derive from their work, according to Gallup.

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