Leadership 101: How to Deal with an Underperforming Employee

September 21, 2015

By: switchandshift.com

“You’re fired!”


When one of your employees isn’t performing up to expectations, has personality conflicts with others in the office, or hasn’t improved despite repeated attempts to fix the problem, you might be tempted to utter those words.


However, sometimes termination isn’t an option at all – especially in union shops and in the public sector, where the rules regarding the hiring and firing of employees are often more strict than with “at will” employees in the private sector.


Does this mean if someone can’t be fired, you’re stuck with a poor performer until they leave of their own volition? Not at all. Here are some ways to encourage better performance from your problem employees:

Define the Problem

When dealing with a problem employee, you might be tempted to make a broad generalization. For instance: “His sales are declining… he’s not even close to reaching

his goals!”


Instead of settling for unproductive statements to frame a problem, dig deeper. After all, when an employee keeps missing quota (or deadlines or other commitments), is it because he or she is incompetent? Or is it because he doesn’t have the tools he needs to do the job?


When an employee has problems, get to the root of the issue – and then clearly define, and communicate, the real problem.


Communicate Effectively

Discussing that real issue, or at least seeking clarification, goes a long way toward improving performance. For example, if your employee is often short with you, it might be that they are being rude and disrespectful– or they might not realize how their responses are being interpreted. Or it may mean that a problem at home is impacting their ability to communicate effectively at work.


Take the time to listen actively. Then, by communicating effectively, help the employee understand how the issue negatively impacts their performance.


Get Outside Help

Sometimes, no matter how hard you and other team members try, you just aren’t sure what to do about a problem employee. If you have already gotten to the root cause of the issue, and have addressed the major issues and impact with the employee, yet the situation doesn’t improve, you might need to bring in a third party to help solve the issue. This could mean a referral to an employee assistance program, a meeting with union representatives, or even an attorney to discuss your options.

It could also mean getting help to improve your own leadership and team-building skills. A report from the Center of Creative Leadership revealed that many public sector leaders struggle with developing, empowering, and leading their teams, suggesting those leaders in particular could benefit from advanced education in human capital management.

Focus on Documentation

When all else fails, and termination looms on the horizon, the burden of proof falls to you, the leader. Without properly documenting the reasons for a firing – and the steps you took to avoid that situation – a hornet’s nest may develop.


With each underperforming employee, thoroughly document your efforts. Attempts at improving performance, conversations with the employee, training and counseling provided, and the carefully measured results of your efforts must all be meticulously recorded. No matter how difficult the situation becomes, maintain your focus on documentation.

At some point in your career, you will need to deal with an underperforming employee. When that happens, be ready to serve as a mentor, coach and counselor – rather than jumping right to “you’re fired!”

« Return to press room