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By Clare Jupp

How you respond when an employee is underperforming speaks volumes about the health of your business

Even in the best organisations there will be some team members who fail to meet expectations. Equally, new recruits can get off to a slow start. What approach do you take with such individuals? What interventions do you make and how long do you give them to up their game?

How you deal with underperformers speaks volumes about your business. If people are valued and regarded as individuals with something to contribute, your approach will be to help them improve and succeed. If your people are just numbers, you will not feel that sense of responsibility or the desire to make a success of them.Staff turnover will be high and retention low.

If you fall somewhere in between, your people are almost certainly important to you but your support of underperformers might be somewhat limited.

Identify the cause

What is your company philosophy? Is there a zero-tolerance approach, where fools are not suffered gladly and are quickly moved on? Does the person concerned have a time-bound opportunity to ‘shape up or ship out’? Or does your business believe bringing about improvement is a shared responsibility between employee and employer?

Whatever your approach, your first action will be to pinpoint the cause. Is the issue linked to skill or to attitude? Skills are, of course, much easier to improve.

Training, mentoring, buddying and peer observation are useful approaches that can bring good results.

A poor attitude, however, poses a different challenge altogether. If a person has the desire to change, they can and will eventually do so. But if the underperformer finds excuses and lacks drive and courage then you have a battle on your hands.

Intensive coaching can help them see things differently but this is a time- and labour-intensive process. How patient are you willing to be, and is your underperformer worth this level of effort?

Our performance management programme serves as a temporary ‘safety net’ for those who need extra input beyond our usual training and development. When someone is identified as a candidate for the programme, coaching sessions are held weekly. These involve lots of questioning and some soul searching.

The agenda focuses on developing people as people, not as managers, consultants, administrators and so on. As they develop as people, they generally improve in their roles. Confidence is key to success.

Other interventions take place alongside coaching, including one-on-ones with the appropriate line manager. These focus on the job role, such as workflow, business levels, tasks and objectives for that week. The manager has tight control of this part as they, naturally, know best. The team member is also observed by directors and our learning champions. These members help us to identify the issues and monitor progress.

Additionally, a buddy is assigned to help with particular skill areas, such as IT or product knowledge, and a desk mentor will give ongoing support and encouragement on a daily basis, albeit more informally.

Last resort

Our experience with this approach has led us to conclude, however, that a person cannot be carried. If the situation affects the team ethos and damages the culture, the option to dismiss has to be regarded as the only one.

When it comes to performance management, no leader wants to be seen as a pushover but the label of ruthless tyrant is equally undesirable.

Having a reputation for firing people reflects poorly on your people management philosophy as well as your recruitment policy: how did you get it so wrong to start with? High staff turnover is costly and damaging to morale, so it is crucial to recruit the right people, retain them and support them when things go off track.

Dismissal might be the only option in certain cases but my strong belief in people leads me to believe that success is always just around the corner.