how to deal with employee performance problems

A reader writes:

I’m preparing to visit with an employee who appears to need coaching.

The employee has good qualities such as a perceived ability to do the things asked to do. Also, a sense of dedication to the overall concept of work.

Problems are: He is reluctant to follow through on tasks which he should be familiar with by now and co-workers often have to jump in and assist, which is a source of frustration. He also has a tendency to spend time doing tasks that are not specifically his responsibility. This causes his primary responsibilities to be neglected.

Do you have any suggestions of how to proceed? My main hope is to carry this out without frustrating him, but giving him a sense of direction and allowing him to take it from there. Any thoughts or other suggestions?

The most effective way of dealing with employee problems is pretty much always this:

– Be straightforward about the problems you’ve noticed. Clearly describe how the person is falling short of the bar you need him to meet, and what a successful performance would look like in contrast.

– See if you can figure out what might be causing the problem, by (a) asking the employee to tell you how he perceives the issues (“I’d like to hear your thoughts about what’s causing these issues. What’s your sense of what might be going on?”) and (b) asking your own questions. (For instance, in this case: Does he need more training so he’s not reliant on his coworkers? Is he clear on what his priorities are and how he should be spending his time? Is he a poor time manager?)

– If you’re able to identify factors contributing to the problem, make any suggestions you have about how he might do things differently. For instance, if he has a time management issue, you might suggest he begin planning projects backwards and set interim deadlines for himself to better structure his work. If he has a different idea than you do about how he should be spending his time, use this chance to get aligned so that you’re both on the same page about expectations.

Now, after this conversation, in many cases the employee will make the improvements needed. But if the problem persists, you talk about it again, this time escalating the seriousness of the conversation. This is different from the first conversation, in that you’re making it very clear that this isn’t routine feedback. You’re talking about a more severe problem that is holding the employee back and has the potential to become an even more serious problem if not fixed.

Now is the time to be clear about potential consequences if improvements aren’t made. For instance, assuming the problem is about something fundamental to the job, you might say something like, “If your performance improves and you sustain that level, then we’ll just move forward. But if we’re still seeing these issues a few weeks from now, I’ll need to put you on a formal improvement plan and after that, if it doesn’t improve, I’d need to let you go. So my concerns here are serious ones — I think you have a great deal of potential, but I also need you to be performing at a higher level.”

Difficult? Yes.

But no matter what the outcome is, you will be doing the employee a significant service by speaking honestly about where his performance is falling short. Too many managers never put aside their discomfort about such conversations, and as a result, many employees never have the opportunity to learn how they could do better. Good luck.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Diane*

    Oh dear. The questioner is using a lot of tentative, fluffy words: "appears to need coaching," "perceived ability to do the things asked," and "sense of dedication to the overall concept of work."

    Is your employee effective or not? Does he understand his job? Does he meet deadlines? Is his work of acceptable quality? Is he a supportive and helpful colleague? Does his respond reasonably to feedback? Or does he appear to care about the concept of being present for eight hours? If you had the choice, would you hire him again?

    I don't know if the issue is with him, the direction he's gotten, the environment (everybody is so concerned with being nice that they aren't clear), or some combination. But effective and compassionate coaching needs to be clear, with specific examples of what you don't want and what you do. Are you telling him directly that he needs to do x by y, and that it needs to look like z, or are you hinting?

  2. DrJohnDrozdal*

    Sometimes the hardest thing a manager needs to do is ask, "Have I done anything – even unknowingly – to contribute to my direct report's performance issue?"

    If I am a manager and have an employee that I believe should be familiar with certain tasks by this point in the job and who seems to spend time working on the wrong tasks, I will first ask myself if I have done enough to teach the direct report those tasks and clearly explain job expectations and what is not part of the job as well.

    Oh, and by the way, remember that the root of the word "discipline" means "to teach".

  3. Charles*

    AAM – I think you give only half the advice this writer "appears to need."

    Diane, like you, I too notice the "tentative" words.

    That tells me that there is more to this story than an underperforming employee who "appears" to need coaching. (I also like the use of "visit with" this employee. What are you going to do – have tea and crumpets with him? But, perhaps, this a regionalism that I am not familar with. Where I come from "visit" is a social thing while "meet" is a business thing; so, my apologies if I misunderstand this phrase.)

    Has this writer not reviewed/coached employees before?How about this employee – How was it handled then? How do other managers in the company handle it? Is there no formal review process in place?

    Good grief – my list of questions for this writer is endless. I truly want to say that there is a word for this kind of management – wishywashy.

    Dr John has given the other half of the advice this writer needs – what has the management done to contribute to this situation.

    As a trainer one of my pet peeves is managers who have "underperforming" employees and think that if they just send them to me for a training session on "whatever", then things will magically improve. Sorry folks, it doesn't work that way when the real problem is a lack of clearly defined goals or directions from management – just plain poor communications skills.

    A real good, but long-term, solution is 360 degree reviews. This way the manager can find out if it is just this one person having trouble knowing what his job is or if others do as well.

    Or perhaps the others have been with this manager longer and therefore know how to "fill in the blanks" whenever they get incomplete directions or unclear expectations from management.

    AAM's advice is a good step in the right direction; but I suspect they don't go far enough.

  4. class-factotum*

    The employee has good qualities such as a perceived ability to do the things asked to do.

    Yes, this bothered me as well. "Perceived" ability? You mean he can BS about being able to do things but really can't?

    There is "can but won't" and "would but can't." Which one is this guy? If he is a "can but won't," he needs to get with the program or be fired.

    If he's a "would but can't," what is the can't? Lack of knowledge or simple lack of ability to do the job no matter what? If it's lack of knowledge, he needs to get the knowledge. If it's lack of ability, then he's gone or at the least reassigned to something he can do.

    But all this tentativeness is maddening. You are the manager. Tell him what he is supposed to do and then give him feedback. That's what you are being paid to do.

  5. class-factotum*

    co-workers often have to jump in and assist

    I thought about this part, too. Are you willing to sacrifice your good employees just so you don't hurt the feelings of the one who isn't doing what he's supposed to be doing?

  6. BossLady*

    This is probably going to be a unpopular post. Perhaps all the posters need a little of their own medicine. The poster is using tentative language. Ok.

    But do we need to jump on a bandwagon and brand him/her as a "bad manager" effectively this is rookie bashing. This person is clearly new, and asking a question. I like how Diane approaches this for the most part, but overall I have to say the tone is less-than-helpful. And this person has come here for help.

    I am sort of getting tired of hearing how everyone who doesn't prescribe to a certain methodology or lack a certain amount of experience is a "bad manager," it's not especially helpful for anyone involved. And all managers have to start somewhere, they usually start there with very little to no mentoring or guidance. So bravo to those who go out and try and find it how they can. Including the OP.

  7. Anonymous*

    BossLady – I understand what you're saying, but think of it as 'tough love'.

    I'm not the OP, but if I was being naive due to lack of experience, I wouldn't want those who could help me to dance around the issue if for no other reason than I might not realize how important what they're saying is.

    Their honest opinions would have much more impact if there was no spin. I don't remember anyone being explicitly mean or malicious, but if what others have posted was enough to hurt my feelings or make me cry, it'd be doubtful I have a thick enough skin to be a manager…

  8. Buy Soma*

    What a, I really need to work on this one. A lot of information you shared a lot of thing to do! Thanks

  9. Lily*

    As a newbie manager, I often had the feeling that something was wrong, but couldn’t describe the problem at all. The OP was able to identify the problems, so that is already a good start.

    The OP has also decided to talk to the employee which is another good decision. In the past, I thought that performance problems must have been obvious to employees, so why talk about them? However, I have noticed that people do try pretty hard, so whatever performance problems exist, the employee has probably discounted their importance. A conversation with the manager ought to increase the priority level, whether or not the employee is able to do something about it. At the very least, the PIP won’t take them by surprise.

    OP ought to follow up because entrenched habits aren’t cured by “a sense of direction” If the manager holds the conversation that Alison described, is it a good idea to ask the employee to work out their own PIP where they can commit to some of the suggestions discussed? Otherwise, I worry that the employee will understand the urgency but be rather lost about what to do. Or am I taking on too much of the responsibility?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Once you put someone on a PIP, the end point is firing them if they don’t make the needed improvements. So I wouldn’t have this person do a PIP unless it’s at the point where they’ll be fired if they don’t improve (if they are at that point, then yes).

  10. Muhammad Ashfaq*

    You as a manager, working in an organization. There happened a matter, issue or problem. You are required to solve that problem.
    PROBLEM: “Employee Performance is decreasing”

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