How to Address Poor Performance

If you’re a manager for any substantial length of time, you’re going to run into performance problems with an employee. It’s inevitable. One of the greatest tests of a manager is how they address poor performance. It’s a situation you must handle with caution, compassion, and decisiveness. Here are a few tips to help you address poor performance with your employees.

1. Act quickly

Managers must act quickly when addressing poor performance. Otherwise, employees are allowed to continue performing poorly. Managers do employees a disservice when they do not correct poor performance. The employee remains oblivious to the poor performance and has no opportunity to correct it.

When poor performance is addressed too late, employees feel ambushed. They wish they would have known sooner, and they may question the manager’s motives since the poor performance was so long ago. Questions like these run through the employee’s mind: Why is the manager addressing the performance after all this time? Is the manager preparing to fire me? Did the manager start caring about this issue only recently?

2. Be specific

There’s much more to giving performance feedback than telling employees they’re doing a good job or a bad job. Managers must be specific when communicating about poor performance. Here are a few poor performance examples with specific feedback a manager would give:

  • The employee is frequently late to work. “John, I noticed you arrived at work late four out five days this week. It’s very important for everyone to arrive on time because we are in an exceptionally busy season.”
  • Karen misses important deadlines. “Karen, you distributed the quarterly report three days later than we told the shareholders it would be sent. This makes the company look sloppy in front of investors.”
  • Steve’s customers complain about his lack of attention. “Steve, three of your customers have complained to me in the last month that you haven’t returned their phone calls promptly. We run the risk of losing them if you continue to dismiss their needs.”

The feedback examples above tell exactly what is wrong with an employee’s performance and why this performance is unacceptable.

3. Offer support

Once you’ve given feedback to the employee about the poor performance, offer support to help the employee reach the level of performance that meets your expectations. Determining the support you can give depends on a variety of factors including your time, the company’s resources, and the willingness of the employee to accept your support.

Collaborate with the employee on solutions. They likely know better than you which supports will work and which ones won’t. In the example above about Karen’s missing deadlines, you could offer to help her come up with a work plan that gives her intermediate deadlines toward the ultimate objective of distributing the quarterly report on time. If Karen accepts your support, great! If she does not, that’s okay. As long as she knows your expectations and commits to meeting those expectations, the onus is on Karen to perform well.

4. Document conversations and actions

Once you’ve realized an employee’s performance problem is not just a blip on the radar, you need to start documenting the performance conversations you have with the employee and the actions each of you takes. Should you need to discipline the employee, this documentation helps your HR department guide you on treating the employee fairly. Consistency in human resources is important because it can keep you from being sued by an upset employee.

5. Set goals

When you address poor performance and give feedback on how to improve, you should also set goals with the employee. In Steve’s example above, you may set a goal for him to have zero customer complaints over the next month about his lack of attention. Such goals give employees the motivation to improve their performance.

6. Follow-through

Follow through on the goals you set with your employees. When you set goals, set a date for when you and the employee will come back together to evaluate progress toward the goals. That way, the employee knows you will follow through on the goals. The expectations are set, the goals are in place, and you will evaluate the employee’s progress at a given time.

If the employee makes satisfactory progress, don’t stop working on the issue. Make sure the improved performance is sustained. Set more follow-up performance meetings until you are convinced the employee’s good performance is their new normal performance.

If the employee does not make satisfactory progress, you may need to set new goals. You may also need to move toward terminating the employee. Your HR department can advise you on how to proceed when your efforts to improve the employee’s performance don’t work out as you planned.

Press onward

Dealing with poor performance is something few managers relish. However, this activity is essential for developing employees and running a good operation. Even though you may dread it, address poor performance with your employees as described above. You and they will be glad you did.

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