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11 Ways to Deal with an Underperforming Employee

The GAO released a report last month calling for better management of substandard employees. According to the report, the government could benefit from better performance management training and use of tools to address underperforming individuals.

Dealing with underperforming employees can be difficult, and can lead to some awkward conversations. Here are some of my favorite tips on how to work with your employees to improve their performance:

  1. Be honest, but sensitive: It doesn’t do much good to paint a better picture for the employee than what actually exists, because that likely won’t improve the root causes of poor performance. But badgering an employee, or being disrespectful, won’t serve you well either.
  2. Be clear in your explanations, and ask for feedback: It is important to clearly explain the areas in which you feel the employee is underperforming, and also define your expectations. Ask the employee whether he or she understands how the work could improve.
  3. Encourage two-way communication: As you’re speaking with your employee, ask questions and offer the opportunity for the employee to express concerns or offer thoughts on how the work could be done differently.
  4. Learn about your employee: What is your employee motivated by? What goals does he or she have? Knowing some of these things about your employee can be useful in figuring out the best methods for correcting underperformance. It might also lead you to some underlying causes of poor performance, some of which may not be work related.
  5. Provide frequent follow-up and immediate feedback: After you’ve met with the employee, frequently follow up to assess whether performance is improving. Provide feedback on how you think the employee is improving or areas that still need work.
  6. Recognize positive improvement: Along with offering consistent feedback, it is important to recognize when the employee is improving as soon as possible. You want your struggling employee to replicate good performance, so you need to acknowledge it when it happens, not weeks later when you find the time.
  7. Offer training if necessary: In speaking with your employee, you might find that he or she lacks basic knowledge required to perform certain tasks. If this is the case, offer additional training to close the knowledge gap.
  8. Coach and mentor: Show your employees that you are rooting for them. Offer mentoring sessions to help get the employee back on track and keep your door open for questions or concerns. Consider setting regular meetings, even if they are brief, to continually assess progress and remove barriers to success.
  9. Tie their job back to agency goals and personal goals: This goes along with figuring out what motivates your employee. If he or she is working toward a specific goal, help him or her see how improving performance can act as a stepping-stone. Also, tie the work directly to agency goals so that the employee is able to see how the work has an impact on the broader mission.
  10. Write down your conversations: Keep track of the conversations that you have with your employee and the recommendations that you make. This will aid in follow-up, help you track improvement, and, should you get to a place where you need to take stronger action, you will have a record of your attempts to improve performance.
  11. Develop an official Performance Improvement Plan: Depending on how your agency deals with underperforming employees, you might be required to develop a Performance Improvement Plan that provides the employee an opportunity to improve, and sets specific deadlines for improvement. If the employee cannot meet these goals, stronger action can then be taken.

Have you dealt with underperforming employees? How did you handle the situation?

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Nilsa P. Rodriguez

As a govie I do recognize the importance of our people. This article has basic strategies to support our most important gain : The People
Thank You


This is an excellent article. The hardest part I have come across is when management is not as
assertive as you are. I am not a supervisor but a team lead. I am responsible for the project but not the people. When I require the team to strive for excellence, I often receive resistance. I am asking them to do more and they have often receive good job for so long even though it is not meeting policy. I often wonder if I have multiple heads or speak another language.

So what would be the solution for the non-supervisory leads?