How to Deal with an Underperforming Employee

By George A. Santino

If you’re in a management role at your company, hiring and terminating employees is an integral part of the job. Clearly one of these tasks is more enjoyable than the other, but as a manager, dealing with underperforming employees is very likely a problem you’ve had to face. An employee who was doing a good job is no longer doing so. What happened to cause the change and why? This is the question you must answer, but what’s the best approach to this sensitive situation?

I recommend the direct approach for the simple reason that you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what initiated it in the first place. Sit down and talk with your employee. Determine if he is aware that his performance has degraded. If he says no, you should compare his previous and current performance levels with him. Hopefully you have been giving him regular feedback and he knew what you considered to be good performance. If not, you must correct that issue right away. Employees have the right to know how they’re doing both when things are going well and when they are not. How else can you encourage the continuation of good performance or an adjustment away from poor performance?

Assuming you’ve been giving your employee actionable feedback to this point, he should have noticed that things have been changing. What you must determine now is why his work has declined and what, if anything, can be done to correct the slide. Ask your employee how he thinks things are going. Get on the same page with him about his current performance level and ask him why he thinks he’s currently not performing at an acceptable level. Don’t judge or interrupt. Just listen.

If your employee doesn’t want to tell you the reason, that’s okay. It could be personal and he might not be comfortable having that conversation with his boss. Let him know that it’s fine if he doesn’t want to discuss the reason but that his performance must improve and within a finite period of time. Describe to him what improved performance looks like and how long he has to achieve the goal. Make sure he understands and get another meeting on the calendar to discuss his progress. This should be a very positive meeting. There should be no talk about termination, only about how things can get better and how you’re willing to work with him towards that end.

When you meet with your employee again things will have either gotten better or not. If they have improved thank him and let him know that he must continue along that path. Make sure you give him the feedback he needs to adjust his course towards exceptional performance and, if you weren’t already doing so, set up recurring one-on-one meetings with him to monitor and discuss his progress.

If your employee hasn’t managed to reverse the downward trend of his performance, speak with him about it; make sure he agrees that things haven’t improved and once again ask for the reason. If he still doesn’t want to discuss it, point out that without understanding the problem, you can’t help him to fix it. Once again talk about a timeline for improvement but this time raise the stakes by telling your employee that if the situation is not rectified, other changes will be discussed.

If your employee chooses to tell you the problem, you may or may not be able to help. If he doesn’t understand something about the tasks he’s been asked to perform, you may be able to explain things more clearly, assign him a mentor, or even get him some training. If the problem is with another employee or supervisor there may be changes you can make there as well. If the issue is a personal one, such as an illness at home or a relationship problem you may have to point him elsewhere for help or offer him some time off to deal with it.

If all efforts to help your employee improve his performance are unsuccessful, you will have to take drastic steps. You have a business to run and other employees are counting on you. I’ve always thought that any manager can fire someone but the true skill of a leader is the ability to turn situations like this around. That being said, if it becomes clear that your employee is unable to achieve the required performance level, you may have to terminate him.

First, as you are working though the problem let your employee know that he has thus far failed to right the ship, as it were. Remind him that he’s been given the time and tools such as training and mentorship to help him progress to his former level. If the situation has reached the point that both you and he realize it is untenable, then you must act.

Before terminating your employee from the company one last thing you should do is determine if this is a general problem or something specific to the current job. Sometimes the requirements of the job change and an employee who could perform the role in its previous incarnation doesn’t have the skills for the current position. Are there other places in the company where your employee can be successful? I’m not talking about pushing the problem to some other manager, but if your employee can still be an asset to the company then you owe it to the company and the employee to help him find that opportunity. By the same token, if the issue is such that your employee cannot be successful elsewhere in the company then you also owe it to the company and to the employee to terminate his employment.

You’re probably wondering about that last statement, about owing it to the employee. Really? Are you doing the employee a favor by firing him? My response is, yes. While no one wants to get fired, the fact is that if they’re not able to perform the tasks required of the position, it’s very likely that they’re under a lot of stress and while losing their job can be even more stressful, the fact is it may be the only way to make things better. I’ve had quite a few opportunities in my career to turn around poor performing employees and I’m happy to say I’ve had more successes than failures, but I’ve also had my share of terminations. I’m glad to say that while these people certainly weren’t happy about losing their jobs, I had the chance to talk to several them after the fact, and once they were doing something they could be successful at they were happier and the level of the stress in their lives was much lower.

The next time you have an employee whose performance starts to degrade, don’t avoid the issue but instead face it head on. Do everything you can to help him become an excellent performer once again, but if all efforts fail be willing to make the tough decision. In the long run you, the company, and even the employee will be better off.

George A. Santino helps people who want to break down barriers, including self-imposed barriers, to success. Check out his new book Get Back Up: From the Streets to Microsoft Suites which was an Amazon bestseller.

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