What to do with an underperforming employee…

What do you do when you have an employee or team member who is not performing up to the standards set by the team? A knee-jerk response would be to just get rid of the underperformer. But I am not someone who takes the decision to let someone go lightly. Of course, it is a big deal to separate someone from their livelihood, and I have to be absolutely sure that it’s the right decision for both of us before doing so.

Let’s say I have an underperformer on my team who we’ll call Janice. Janice is not meeting her targets, deadlines keep slipping, and she’s having trouble working with other members of the team.

The first thing I want to make sure of is that external factors are not contributing to the lack of performance. This may require a delicate conversation. I try to find out if there is anything going on with Janice, if she is unhappy about anything. I may refer her to HR or the confidential counseling program our organization provides, if that seems applicable. Then, I give it a little time to see if things improve.

But Janice’s performance does not improve. The same problems keep repeating themselves. In this situation, I can only draw one conclusion: Janice is not a good fit for the role she has been given.

I think every person has something valuable to offer, something they are good at. The trick is matching that up with the right job, which may not even exist at our organization. Once I realize that Janice is not a good fit, I want to figure out if I can find the right role for her here, even if it is in another department.

Of course, I have to take into account the employee’s attitude. If she has become so hostile, apathetic or disruptive that it seems like it would be impossible to continue working with her, I have to conclude that she isn’t a right fit for our organization. Our organization, like any other, has its own peculiar culture. Put some people in that environment and it’s like asking them to work in Baghdad with bombs exploding all around. In those cases, it’s usually best for the employee as well as for the organization to separate.

But in Janice’s case, her attitude is good. She listens to my feedback and is really trying to improve her job performance but just can’t. She works well with many other people in the organization. There are parts of her job that she does do well, and she clearly has skills to offer. In that case, I would like to keep Janice if I can. But it doesn’t make sense to keep her in her current role, where she is pretty much doomed to failure. You simply can’t ask people to improve their weaknesses; if you want them to be happy and you want to get the best work out of them, you have to give them jobs that play to their strengths.

So the first thing I ask Janice to do is to list her strengths, values and motivations – about five or six in each category.This helps us determine where Janice and her role are misaligning.

  • Strengths are the talents that we innately have. Most people know what their strengths are, even if they have never thought about them consciously. We usually recognize them as children and tailor our education to fit them. Your strengths do not change over your lifetime, although your knowledge related to your strengths may deepen. For example, one of my strengths is writing, and over time, I have taken classes, read books and practiced writing to build on and improve that strength.
  • Values are those principles that we will not compromise. You can identify a value by asking, Is this something I would ever give up or sacrifice? If the answer is no, that is one of your values. Values may change as you change and grow, but usually the change is slow and gradual. It is important to identify your values, because if they conflict with your job, you won’t be at peace at work no matter what you do. For example, if one of your values is spending time with your family and your job requires a lot of travel, there’s definitely a conflict.
  • Motivations, or passions, are those things that get you out of bed in the morning. They are the things that are fun or interesting, that really motivate you to go to work. You may think these aren’t important, but a motivated employee is a productive employee. Motivations can change often as your life circumstances and interests change. The motivations you had in college probably aren’t the same ones you have now. One of my motivations is learning about new technologies. So I try to bring that into my job by investigating new technologies and figuring out whether they can improve the way we work.

Janice and I can look at her list together and discuss whether the strengths, values and motivations she has identified align with her role. Chances are, they don’t. For instance, a software development project manager requires someone who is good at organization and keeping track of details, which are not strengths of Janice’s. But she does enjoy teaching people how to use software, so perhaps a training role would be a better fit for her.

The next step, then, is to ask Janice to write an ideal job description for herself. This job description would align with her strengths, values and motivations. This is an entirely new role, so of course I can’t promise her that we will create the job. But the job description will give us a point of focus for future discussions.

Now, Janice has a tough road ahead of her. Because this is a new job that she is proposing, rather than a need the organization has already identified, she will have to sell the job to the organization. In order to do that, I ask her to make sure to include the following pieces of information in her job description:

  • The tasks she is performing now that would be part of her new role: In other words, list the parts of her job she is currently performing well that could be transferred to her new role. This demonstrates that she is currently a valuable contributor to the organization in areas that we’ve already identifed as necessary.
  • Organizational needs or opportunities that she could fill with her new role: Because Janice is creating a new role, she has to identify an area where she could fulfill a real need and demonstrate how she will meet that need. She needs to show personal leadership, so that the organization will trust her to move into this uncharted territory.

We enter this process with the hope and expectation that Janice will be successful and will be able to create a new role for herself in our organization. But even if that is not possible, and we do eventually have to let Janice go, this process should be helpful for her in identifying what types of jobs to pursue. I don’t think it does anyone any good to keep them in a position where they just can’t excel and can’t be happy.

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