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Can You Help a Low-Performing Employee Improve?

At some point during their careers, most managers will face the difficult task of dealing with an employee who consistently falls short of goals and is facing termination. And while the decision to fire someone is never easy, it’s even more challenging when it involves an employee who initially showed promise or who’s especially passionate about the position. If you are in this situation as a manager, it can pay off to take a proactive approach to find a solution before you fire someone you truly believe in.  The following tips from [email protected], UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA program, are practical ways you can help an employee turn things around.

Explain What’s at Stake

When a professional’s performance is so poor that firing him is on the table, you might assume that the situation doesn’t need much explanation. But believe it or not, some employees don’t realize how bad things have gotten until they hear it from a manager or colleague. To make sure you’re both on the same page, start the conversation by being honest and direct about what’s at stake.    

Even if an employee realizes his job is at risk, he might not fully understand the reasons behind the decision, so it’s also important to explain exactly how his behavior or performance fell short of expectations. Resist the temptation to make general statements, and instead be as specific as possible. For example, rather than simply telling him he’s irresponsible, point out that he’s been arriving late for work two or three days per week.  

Understand the Context

Once your employee understands why her job is at risk, it’s your turn to listen and let her share the reasons behind her less than stellar performance. Not only will you get a more complete understanding of the issues affecting your employee, but she might also adopt a better attitude and outlook as a result of being heard.

In the best-case scenarios, you’ll find out the problem can be resolved with a single change, like transferring the employee to a new manager, clarifying the job role, or providing additional training. In other cases, the problem may stem from a situation outside of work. If you can’t resolve these issues, you can brainstorm ways to keep those circumstances from affecting your employee’s work performance.

Collaborate on a Plan

Even the most constructive feedback can be useless unless it’s paired with actionable steps toward progress. Instead of establishing these goals on your own, make it a collaborative process. By working together, you can emphasize the objectives that are most important to you while your employee can offer feedback on what she’s able to realistically accomplish.  

The plan should include concrete milestones for your employee as well as any possible steps you can take as a manager. For example, the employee may have a goal of increasing output by 10 percent by the month’s end, while you agree to provide more resources that will support these efforts.

Follow Up on Progress

Perhaps the most important step — and the most overlooked — is following up with your employee and monitoring his progress. At the end of your initial meeting, set follow-up appointments at frequent, regular intervals. These check-ins not only allow you to discuss whether your employee is meeting each goal, but it gives you both the opportunity to recalibrate your plan if you find it’s not working.  

While these strategies will give you and your employee the best chance at improving a bad situation, there are always instances when even the best efforts won’t deliver results. Throughout this process, you should always be prepared to do what’s best for your agency, even if it means moving on and firing an underperforming employee.

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Profile Photo Terrence Hill

Great tips for one of the perpetual sore spots on the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey – 23.
In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve. and 24.
In my work unit, differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way. This one falls under the category of “easier said than done,” but it is truly critical to success.

We all know who the low performers are, but nobody ever asks us or even acknowledges that they exist. Performance measures are abysmal and accountability for results is often missing.

Just one of the many things wrong with our current performance management process. I could write a book about this…Oh wait, that has been done already.

Mark Hammer

Not really enough, IMO.
Presumably the person was motivated when hired (or else you have bigger organizational issues than that one employee). So why are they shirking or not engaging *now*? Are they burnt out? Do the assigned tasks and responsibilities not motivate them at all? Has something about the way their efforts and achievements result in little perceived consequence sapped their enthusiasm? Do they see the “wrong things” being rewarded around them? Are they preoccupied with something in their personal lives? Is there something going on in the workplace that undermines performance?
Assuming you hired right in the first place (sometimes a very big assumption) starting with the assumption that something in the employee needs to be “corrected” may not get you very far. Employees certainly play a role in this, and aren’t totally off the hook, but they can rise to the occasion, and often sink to the circumstances.