How to Reform a Low-Performing Employee

by Robert Moskowitz on April 16, 2013
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If you’re in business long enough, odds are you’ll have to deal with at least one low-performing employee who’s gumming up the works.

When this happens, it’s common to think in terms of a pink slip, or to react by doing at least one of three things that won’t help the situation:

  • Lower your standards for the employee to be successful on the job, which means that even if they “succeed” the company will gain very little;
  • Tell the employee exactly what to do and how to do it, which merely encourages them to take zero initiative; or
  • Stop trusting the employee to carry their fair share of the workload, which the employee usually interprets as disrespect.

However, rather than fire the employee or lower your standards, both of which cost your company plenty, you could try to transform the slacker into a satisfactory employee and get value from the investment you’ve already made in hiring, training, and coaching the person. Here’s how.

1. Make it clear that job effectiveness is the employee’s responsibility. An effective way to deal with lackluster performance is to put the burden of meeting standards on the employee, not the supervisor. To do this, define the minimum levels of output required and specify the behaviors and attitudes you want to see.

Once the employee understands exactly what you expect, it’s important to make clear that they will be held accountable for their performance. Even more importantly, explicitly ask them for a renewed commitment to improvement, something along the lines of: “Will you meet all these requirements?”

Some employees won’t commit, and you can let them go without qualms. Others will rise to the occasion. Note that until an employee fully accepts this challenge, there is little chance of any long-lasting improvement.

2. Provide sufficient support and flexibility. Once an employee has committed to delivering satisfactory job performance, prime the pump for improvement by working with them to identify the resources they need to do their job well.

Maybe they’ve been shortchanged on raw materials. Maybe they have been rotated among tasks so rapidly and haphazardly that they haven’t been able to complete any one task well enough. Maybe they need more training.

Whatever the specifics, this is where you agree to facilitate the newly committed employee’s effort to perform satisfactorily. You may also want to coach the low-performer on potential problems and on how to get everything done according to your schedule and specifications.

3. Respect the employee’s choices. The hardest part of reforming a low performer is often giving the employee enough leeway to turn their situation around. But they deserve your trust not only for taking responsibility for themselves, but also because their improvement could elevate the whole organization.

Obviously, giving low performers a chance to redeem themselves doesn’t work every time. If there’s no change after a week or two, you can go back to thinking about the pink slip. However, when you see improvement, do as much as you can to encourage and nurture it. You may fan even the tiniest spark of renewed effort into a roaring flame of superior performance.

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