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What to do if you’ve got a lax, unmotivated, or inefficient employee

Underperformance can have a lot of undesirable knock-on effects, including hours of wasted time, increased errors and lower overall morale. In fact, certain studies show that just one underperformer in an otherwise high-performing team can reduce overall productivity by as much as 40%. This is why it’s important for managers to be observant and act immediately once they notice an employee is failing to live up to expectations.

So how do you address the rather frustrating performance management issue of underperformance? Below are some top tips that will help you get to the root cause of the problem and get your employee back on track and productive again.

Why do employees underperform?

Employees underperform for a number of reasons, though not all of them will be entirely the employee’s fault. Before pressing ahead, it is essential that you pinpoint and diagnose the underlying reason for the poor performance. This will help you decide how to move forward. Common reasons for underperformance are:

  • Lack of managerial support
  • Ill health or disability
  • Insufficient training
  • Excessive workload/employee burnout
  • Lack of a challenge
  • A lack of clarity in respect to SMART goals
  • Distractions in the form of home life issues, or problems with work processes or organisational changes
  • Inadequate resources
  • Deliberate poor performance

To get to the root cause, hold an informal meeting

To get to the bottom of the employee’s poor performance, organise an informal, private meeting with your employee. It has been shown that regular one-on-one meetings are great for employee engagement, so making the effort to connect and communicate with your employee will be appreciated. Make the meeting as relaxed and calm as possible. This environment is much more conducive to honest, open discussion. You don’t want your employee to feel confronted; this will cause your employee to either get defensive or shut down.

Get prepared and, prior to the meeting, create a list of the areas where the employee is underperforming. Be specific and be sure to get examples. Being general will weaken your case. Remember that the point of this meeting is to build a rapport, to actively listen and to find out how you can together turn this situation around.

Explain why their underperformance has repercussions

During this performance discussion, explain how their underperformance is having an impact on the rest of the team and the business in general.  Explain that they are a critical member of the team, which is why it is so important that they perform their job to standard. This will show that you still value them, but it will also make it clear that things have to change.

Questions to ask an underperformer

It might be that your employee never realised there was a problem, or they are unwilling to be forthright with you. If this is the case, there are certain questions you can ask to further the conversation and get to the root of the problem:

  • Have there been any recent changes that have caused this situation to arise?
  • Are there any factors that are impeding your ability to do your work?
  • How is life outside of the office?
  • How are you getting along with your work colleagues?
  • Do you enjoy coming to work? Do you enjoy your current position?
  • Do you feel you’re being challenged at work?
  • Do you feel your strengths and skills are being utilised?
  • How clear are you with your current SMART goals?
  • Are you getting enough feedback with relation to your work?

Specify expectations, targets and specific actions to be taken

Employees need to know what is required of them. According to Gallup, only about half of employees actually know what is expected of them at work. This is clearly a problem, as without this knowledge, they are doomed to be an underperformer forever.

Going forward, set targets for improvement and specific actions that need to be taken in order to address the underperformance. Approach these actions much like SMART goals and set a clear timeframe, at which point you will review how things have progressed. Follow this up with an email, confirming the main points of discussion and relevant action points.

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Follow up on your own commitments to help the employee’s behaviour

As we have already covered, underperformance won’t always be solely the employee’s fault. There may be certain actions you, as the manager, can take to improve the situation. If this is the case and you have agreed on action points for you to carry out, make sure you follow through. If you allow your actions to slip downwards on your to-do list, your employee will likely continue to underperform — and you won’t have much justification to object.

Hold regular performance discussions

If your organisation has shifted to continuous performance management, you will already be holding regular monthly check-ins. Use this time to discuss the employee’s performance, provide feedback (both positive and constructive), and maintain an honest dialogue. These meetings can be scheduled with the use of performance management software, which can also help with the exchange of real-time feedback. Keep on top of the situation, and remember that holding off for a yearly appraisal will only result in further problems.

What to do if things don’t improve

If underperformance continues to be an issue, the problem might be unresolvable. It might be that the employee in question is simply unable — or unwilling — to perform the function at hand. At which point, it will be necessary to take formal HR action. Whilst that is never a comfortable route to take, we shouldn’t shy away from difficult decisions where they are required. Although our employees are the most important element of our businesses, the show must go on and your team and business must be able to move forward unimpeded.

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