Overcoming the Obstacles of Performance Management
The bottom line of underperforming employees: they affect your bottom line. That’s why performance management is such a vital skill for every supervisor to hone. But what exactly is meant by “underperforming employees”? To answer that, it’s important to draw a distinction between an underperforming employee and a difficult employee.
For instance, it is possible for a difficult employee to be a decent, or even above-par, performer – at least as far as their duties are concerned. Rather, it’s their behaviour – such as aggressiveness, dishonesty, and indifference to name a few – that makes them difficult. And these behaviours should not be excused, even if they’re doing their job well. In fact, chances are that if you have performing, yet difficult employee, they’re probably impacting your business results in ways you may not even realize, by disrupting the dynamic of your team and possibly affecting the performance of others.
We’ve written on how to approach indifferent employees and fighting employees, and even on how to spot all around difficult employees before you hire them. But what about when an employee is on time every day and seemingly tries really hard to do well, but without success? Some managers jump the gun, moving to let go such employees without considering why they might be underperforming and whether they’re really living up to their full potential. (Not to mention that being too quick dismiss someone can potentially land you in legal hot water.) Proper performance management calls for the following:
Consider that there may be underlying, understandable reasons
Are people always late because they sleep in? Do they always miss their numbers because they have no discipline? Are they always absent because they’re faking sickness or leaving early because they’re lazy? Sometimes, yes. Always? No. You need to consider that there may be a good reason for why an employee is underperforming – even a personal reason that they’re not comfortable talking about. In fact, family-related issues are not rare among the so-called “Sandwich Generation”, which is very busy outside of work caring for their growing children and their aging parents at the same time. And hastily dismissing or failing to accommodate the needs of this cohort can have serious legal implications.Insufficient training and/or onboarding may also be to blame. Apart from the dangers associated with potentially hazardous environments (including a regular ol’ office) and physically-demanding duties, a lack of employee preparation in any context can lead to a host of performance management challenges, even in white-collar settings. In fact, offering training to help an employee improve their performance is an excellent safeguard should they not improve despite your efforts, are let go, and then try to take legal action. But a more common consequence of unprepared employees is heightened turnover, which is not only costly, but doomed to happen over and over again without the implementation of effective training procedures.
Performance management musts
For legal reasons, there are performance management best practices that employers must follow:
- Let the employee know, in no uncertain terms, that their performance is not what is expected of them, and that continuing to underperform could result in being let go.
- Provide a reasonable opportunity and length of time for the employee to improve.
Of course, the specifics of what constitutes a “reasonable” opportunity or length of time can only be determined on a case-by-case basis (which is why you should always consult your HR and legal departments in such situations). But in every case, there’s no reason not to approach the employee in question with a level of sensitivity and empathy. In fact, anything less could result in their departing voluntarily, leaving you with one less worker and turnover costs. A bit of kindness could mean the difference between finding yourself poring over piles of resumes or continuing to focus on your core work while a reformed, productive employee successfully carries out the tasks you hired them for.
Still, be sure not to drown your message in molasses. Candy-coating the concern, and the consequences, defeats the purpose of confronting an underperforming employee. Clarity must take precedence – for their sake and yours.
Explain the change
In order for an employee to improve their performance, they need to understand what they can do to make it happen – and it’s the manager’s responsibility to let them know. Plot out an improvement plan with clear benchmarks to be met within certain timeframes, and let the employee know that they should continually refer to the plan as both a reminder and guide.
Remind them that it’s not all about them
An employee may be more receptive to news about their underperformance if they realize how what they’ve been doing/not doing is affecting their teammates – especially if they have good personal relationships with them. But even if that’s not the case, reinforcing how they’re affecting the rest of the team – and even the company’s bottom line – can only bolster your reasons for having the talk in the first place.
Acknowledge the positives
Unlike a “difficult” employee, whose behaviour is very much the issue (see above), a well-behaved, but underperforming employee should not come away from your conversation with them thinking they can’t do anything right. Good performance management means highlighting the good things an employee has done so that they can play to their strengths, move forward with confidence, and focus specifically on what they need to do to improve (see “Explain the change” above).
Don’t dilute their duties
An employee-improvement plan should not involve relieving someone of their duties. After all, they were hired to perform specific tasks that they should be able to perform. The employee needs to show that they can in fact successfully handle what’s in their job description. Besides, the work you’ve taken away will still need to be done, putting more pressure on other members of your team. They won’t appreciate this, and the last thing you want to do is instill resentment in your top performers.
Record your progress
Serious issues with any employee should always be journalized, as should the progress (or lack of progress) they make throughout their improvement plan. Make note of everything that is said to the employee, what they said in return, whether they carried out what was asked of them, and the results. Think of this process as a series of mini performance appraisals.
Performance management for performance managers
Of course, the key to good performance management is to ensure you have good performance managers. If no formal performance management training program exists in your organization, it’s time to implement one not only for new managers, but as a refresher for even your more seasoned supervisors to ensure consistent best practices across the board.