How to Rescue an Underperforming Employee

July 15, 2014 - 4 minute read - Posted by

If you are in a leadership role, at some point in your career you will have to deal with an underperforming employee.

For some, this conversation is easy. This is likely because you already talk to your employees on a regular basis, so the thought of addressing an under-performance issue might not be all that scary.

But for a lot of you it isn’t that simple. Some of you don’t really know your employees, which makes it even harder to predict how an employee may respond to certain conversations.

Nobody wants to be bad cop, but how you manage and communicate with an underperforming employee is critical both to the success of the employee, and your success as a leader. Whatever you do, don’t make one of these mistakes:

Resort to a Performance Improvement Plan

Nothing demotivates employees more than a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). The actual concept is a good one; but only if it is designed and used to help an employee. Sadly, this is rarely the case. PIPs are often more about covering a manager’s rear-end with documentation to help get rid of an employee, than they are to help an employee. In other words it’s a lazy way for management to claim they did their due diligence. PIPs only contribute to employees feeling victimized and unsupported by management. So before taking this route ask what the real motive here is. Is it to help an employee improve or is it more about gathering additional evidence and setting up a dismissal framework?

Wait for the annual performance review

Waiting for an annual review is risky for many reasons. If your review process is several months away, that leaves a lot of time for an employee to continue to slide. Also, waiting for an annual review to address problem areas can create a negative and defensive reaction. Some employees may even be unaware that their performance is lagging.  And by choosing not to address an underperforming employee right away, you are only contributing to the dysfunction of your own team/department.  This will inevitably cause more stress as everyone works harder to compensate for any shortcomings. Remember, employee communication is a continuous journey. It involves check-ins and one-to-one discussions all the time.

Do nothing

It might seem like the easiest option, but ignoring the problem will makes things worse. The longer you let things slide, the more difficult that conversation will be. If you ignore an underperforming employee you also are avoiding your own managerial responsibilities. This could potentially lead to your own disciplinary action. Not to mention you risk losing the respect of your entire team. And don’t let fear prevent you from having any awkward conversations. Approaching an underperforming employee doesn’t have to be negative. In fact, how an employee might respond is triggered by how you approach and deliver feedback. If you come across negative or critical, you set the tone for a defensive employee.

However you decide to address underperformance remember that you are dealing with a real human, not a disobedient pet. And while you may be quick to blame the underperforming employee, how you respond and deal with the situation is even more important.