Friday, November 10, 2023

How To Manage an Underperforming Employee

Several years ago I was called to my bosses office and given an ultimatum. Fire one of my direct reports, or be accountable for their actions. If you've been in a leadership role before, you may have encountered a situation where it's "them or me" and you had to make a tough decision. But as a servant leader, part of your job is to lay yourself on the line for your team, and that's exactly what I did. In this particular case, it wasn't a matter of the individual not doing their job, it was the manner in which they were treating those they interacted with. Ultimately the fix was easy. A simple heart to heart chat to make the individual aware of their actions and discover the source. That individual continued to work for the organization and is still there long after I moved on.

Who determines if an employee is underperforming? The customer? Leadership? Peers? The answer is clear, it should be the team leader. If goals, objectives, roles, and responsibilities are made clear to the team and there are processes in place that are measured, then the question is an easy one to answer and the same yardstick is used to judge each team member. You can't adequately manage what you don't measure. And if you don't establish standards and hold each team member to the same standard, you open yourself to unconscious bias. As leaders, it's impossible to not develop a level of friendship with our direct reports. Inevitably we end up having better relationships with some of our team members than others. But if you have processes, standard procedures, goals, and objectives  measured by metrics and key performance indicators, then you are able to measure everyone equally. As a guy I once worked for taught me, "Your number, is your number, is your number". Statistics don't lie. 

Here's an example. Let's say a peer within the company comes to you and reports that one of your team members is "making mistakes" and they do not want to work with them anymore. As that person's leader, how do you handle it? Do you go to the employee and ask "is this true"? Do you report the incident to HR? Do you ignore the issue? None of those things should be your first response. Here's how to handle the situation.

Define the "Mistakes"

When someone makes an accusation that "mistakes" were made, the first thing you need to determine is what those mistakes were. You need to get specifics. Dates, times, customers, documents, etc. All the information related to the complaint. Then you need to establish if this is a pattern of behavior or an isolated incident. We're all humans and we all make mistakes, but a pattern of mistakes can either lack of direction or it could indicate a performance issue. In order to determine that, you need to determine if your team member was following the documented process. I always tell my teams "If you follow the process, I have your back. If you cowboy outside the process, you're limiting my ability to help you". Once you've gathered the data, analyze it to determine what the outcome was. Did this mistake cost the company money? Did you lose a deal? Or did someone just get their feelings hurt? Did the accuser understand the role of your employee? I've seen instances where one of my direct reports was doing work "over and above" his job description. This became the standard by which all others were judged. "But Jim always did that for me". By operating outside of the process, Jim painted the rest of his team into a corner.

 Listen To Both Sides

There are two sides to every story. In today's company culture, we are much more aware of employee we should be. Because of this employees aren't always comfortable addressing issues person to person. We especially see this with younger members of the workforce. This issue is compounded by the fact that many jobs are now remote and face to face interaction is becoming increasingly rare and there are fewer opportunities to develop rapport with teammates and peers. In the "old days", back in my early career, if someone had a beef with you, they'd approach you and you'd work it out like professionals. Now that is less and less the case. The individual with the issue goes directly to the other persons boss, their boss, or HR...and in some cases all of those. When this happens, the employee may not even be aware that anything is wrong. You can't fix what you don't know about. By the time the issue gets back to the employee, they may have little to no memory of the issue they are being accused of. 

Once you hear the side of the accuser, and gather the information mentioned above, you can have a talk with your direct report. Be sure to present the specific information. Don't say, "I hear you and Bob aren't working well together", instead phrase it "Back in July you included incorrect information in a quote to XYZ Customer which caused us to lose a $300k deal". Immediately the employee may get on the defense, so it's important to let them know that you want to hear what they have to say. The next thing is important. Shut up and listen. Take notes. Then recap your employees statement and get their agreement on the facts.

Get To Know The Individual

In order to get to the root cause of the performance issue, you will need to dive into a personal level. We're all human beings with lives outside of work. In one instance, I had a employee tell me they had a number of health issues and had nearly died. They were prescribed medication that effected their ability to do their job. Obviously this can effect their work. Make sure the employee hasn't had any major life changes, health issues, or other problems that could impact their work performance. Next, check their other work. Chat with others they work with. Ask for feedback on their performance. Review their performance metrics. You ARE keeping metrics for your team aren't you? If not, how do you know what good looks like?

Form An Opinion

Now that you've seen the facts, spoken with both sides, and evaluated the situation...what do you feel the problem is? Who is at fault?'s usually a bit of both sides. If it turns out your direct report was at fault, a corrective action plan needs to be put in place.

Clear Understanding of the Process

Does the employee understand the process and what is expected of them? Review the process with them and make sure they know where to find the process documentation. If you don't have a well defined, written process, then you can't hold someone accountable to a process that doesn't exist. Even if the company has tribal knowledge of the process, you need to document your processes! This can't be overstated. 

Are They Committed

Does the employee show a genuine interest in improving? Do they value their job and the company or are they just trading their life for a paycheck? Any type of discussion or action around underperformance will be demoralizing to the employee. But if they are committed to doing better, your encouragement will go a LONG way to helping them become better. Your employee will be very gun shy after this process. They will constantly be on edge, worried about making another mistake. You need to let them know that you have their back and you want to see them succeed. Try to chat with them at least a couple of minutes a day. Not as part of a performance review, but just as a "How are you doing and what can I do to help you?". Show them you care, and they will care too. It's important to spend more time with those on your team who are struggling. It will pay dividends down the road.

Are They The Right Fit?

My motto has always been, "Hire personality and teach skill". If someone has the right attitude and willingness to learn, they are usually a good fit on my teams. I once hired a gentleman who worked in food service prior to joining my technical team. Obviously two vastly different skill sets. His attitude was awesome and his work ethic was second to none. His positive attitude was infectious and the team rallied around him. He eventually learned the job (in quick time) and was a valuable member of the team. You may find that you have a great employee, but they may be a better fit elsewhere in the organization. Find out what their passion is and help align them with a role that best matches them. 

Difficult Decisions

There is an old saying, "Hire slow and fire fast". There is a lot of wisdom in this statement. If you truly feel like an employee isn't a good fit for your team, don't let them linger. You will not only lose the respect of the rest of the team, it can have serious negative consequences to the team and to your relationships with your higher ups. I am not saying that you trade one set of problems for another. Firing an employee who needs some coaching only to hire someone else who...guess what...will also need some coaching, is not a good plan. But if you have read my post on employee engagement, you know the damage that a disengaged employee can do to your team. You have to rid yourself of that rot as quickly as possible. 

Being a leader is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have, but also one of the most stressful. When you lead a team, you are judged by how effective your team is. During my training at the American Management Association, we were told "the employee always wins". That's very true. They can make you or break you. You responsibilities as a leader must include being a friend, psychologist, confidant, battle buddy, etc. A boss tells people what to do, but a leader inspires them to do it and do it well.

How To Manage an Underperforming Employee

Several years ago I was called to my bosses office and given an ultimatum. Fire one of my direct reports, or be accountable for their action...