Poor Job Performance: A Checklist for Managing Low Performers

You're faced with a challenging task. It feels like climbing Mount Everest, blindfolded.

Meet Ashley — she's an employee at B Players Inc., a classic case of underperformance.

She's neither reaching her goals nor getting the job done.

Let's be honest, with her poor performance she's a time suck for you as a manager and a profit-killer for your organization.

The problem? Letting someone go due to low performance is everything but easy — it can cost you in lost productivity to keep a bad hire, but spending the time and resources to find a replacement can be even more expensive.

Worse, there's a worldwide shortage of great talent. That'll throw your firing decision under a microscope.

Not to fret...

In this post, I'll help you grasp the nettle before it grows. But first, let's look at three sure-fire signs of poor work performance:

Pinning Down the Poor Performer

Let me pre-frame it: Identifying poor performance can be tricky. 

There are a few signs that can save you from a costly mistake.

1. Unmet expectations

The first and most obvious alarm bell is when Ashley, your underperformer, stops meeting expectations.

The quality of her work is always poor and she doesn't act on your suggestions for improvement, even though you've told her exactly what you're expecting from her.

Does that sound familiar? Time to tick that box!

2. Disgruntled peers

Your team needs to work in concert, like Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

They need to deliver and over-deliver, working seamlessly together.

Is Ashley like that? Is she carrying her weight? Open to constructive criticism?

If she's all talk and no action, that's another box ticked.

Remember: While chemistry is desired in a workgroup, not everyone is going to get along perfectly.

Make sure you can make the distinction between personality clashes and low performance.

3. Neglected company values

Accountability, transparency, teamwork.

Each and every organization, including yours, has a set of core values it stands by.

If Ashley spurns those values — she deserves a pink slip.

Why? Because you can always coach a person in work-related skills and get them up to speed. But it's hands-down impossible to change a person's workplace value system.

Hint: This is a great thing to keep in mind while hiring, too. It's not all about skill and expertise — if a candidate doesn't fall in line with your company values, they're not going to fit well even if they're the most qualified for the job.

Taking Action on Poor Performance

So far, so good. You have proof that Ashley isn't pulling her weight.

Should she go or should she stay? Though it may be tempting to just fire her, it may not always be the best route.  It's costly and time-consuming to replace her.

To help her get out of her underperforming slump, you can offer up help in a few ways to see if there's an underlying problem you didn't see before.

1. Clearly communicate expectations

Ideally, just like all your team members, Ashley needs to be aware of clear-cut expectations. Otherwise, she might not even know she's blowing it.

This one might seem obvious, but 50% of employees are unaware of what management expects of them.

If you suspect Ashley is unaware of her underperformance, you can help by implementing what many successful companies use — Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). They help employees along by very clearly setting quantitative goals, so they can easily gauge how well they're doing on a certain task.

2. Provide training and learning opportunities

Once Ashley knows what you want her to do, does she have the ability to do it?

If not, provide the necessary help to get Ashley's skills up to speed. You can do this as a manager with 1-on-1 meetings, outsource with other experienced employees in your company, or go with formal training materials.

Providing skills training not only helps Ashley improve the quality of her work — it also helps motivate her to excel since you're showing you're invested in her growth.

Don't forget those soft skills, too. Especially if she's on the front line with your customers — like sales or customer service — you want to ensure she can handle interpersonal challenges as well.

3. Make a detailed plan

The next step is communicating to Ashley how you plan to help her get better. With the above lessons in tow, start writing out goals you have for her performance over the next three months.

First, make the goals achievable and quantifiable:

Right: Write 12 high-quality articles a month, for the company's blog or as guest posts.

Wrong: Get 12 backlinks per month via guest posting. (Ashley has no control over how many of her pieces will be published by other blogs.)

Second, align the goals with departmental targets:

Right: Set up a marketing podcast and publish 15 episodes by the end of the quarter.

Wrong: Rebuild a Kawasaki 55 HP outboard engine. (This doesn't help the company at large unless you specialize in outboard engines.) 

After the goals have been set and Ashley knows what they are, check in with her progress during regularly scheduled meetings throughout the three-month period. That way, you can see how she's doing and readjust the goals if necessary. In turn, she can also ask questions and voice any concerns.

When All Else Fails...

After giving Ashley all the tools she needs to up her performance, you should see a significant improvement in her work performance.

If you don't, it's time to take things a step further and have a difficult conversation.

I know it's tough, but it has to be done. Sometimes the hard conversations are the only ones that will help heal bad behavior.

Whether you're planning on firing Ashley or just want to warn her that her performance is unacceptable, the best way to start is by sharing your feedback.

The key here is specifics. Back up each instance with examples, including facts, numbers, observations, etc. The more you can support your point, the harder it is for Ashley to dispute.

Because it's a tough conversation, Ashley can have a range of different responses you need to be prepared for:

  • Shut down — shock, almost no conversation.
  • Avoiding through agreement — wants to end the meeting fast.
  • Defensive — debates the feedback, can become aggressive.
  • Emotional — crying, unable to discuss rationally.
  • Rejecting — does not accept responsibility for her problems, blames others or circumstances outside her control.

Every one of those reactions is understandable and okay, as long as you both can agree on a course of action.

Whether it's setting a new, more in-depth three-month plan or assigning her a direct mentor to check her work and help her learn, if you're planning on keeping Ashley around, you have to be prepared to put forth some extra resources.

Some Parting Thoughts

As a manager, you have to spin a lot of plates in your ever-demanding role. Dealing with underperformance is one of them.

Give all your employees — especially those falling behind — lots of coaching. Set clear standards. If they still fall short of your expectations, be ready to let them go.

The advice we share on our blog is intended to be informational. It does not replace the expertise of accredited business professionals.

About the Author

Max Woolf

Max Woolf is a writer. He’s passionate about helping people land their dream jobs through the expert career industry coverage. In his spare time, Max enjoys biking and traveling to European countries.

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