What to Do When an Employee is Underpeforming


114: Underperforming Employees and What To Do When They Aren’t Working Out


This week we are talking about that dreaded moment when you realize that a person on your team is underperforming and isn’t working out. Now, there is some additional context here; is this a newer employee who’s been on your team for 60 days or someone that suddenly has fallen into the “underperforming” category who has been with you for two years or someone who has struggled since the first week and they are still on your team two years later? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with leaders and when I ask how long the person has been underperforming they say, “well, about two years.” If you’ve been in this situation, you are not alone.

Let’s start at the beginning and with the employee in their first 90 days who doesn’t seem to be getting it. First, if it isn’t established up front that the first 90 days are critical for both parties to discover if this role is going to work well, that’s silly. No interview process is fool-proof and this period is a provisional period that typically isn’t made salient. Next, if you don’t have a specific on-boarding process, this is a set-up for an issue as you move along. Underperforming employees in the first ninety-days is a different situation than someone who has been with you  for two years.

Here is a question that I can facilitate the on-boarding process if you don’t have one: what are the top 3 things this person needs to know to get off to a great start; not a perfect start but a great one in the first week, then first month, then the second months. You see the pattern here right? Ensuring that you have this process in place keeps you, as the boss, from wanting to blame yourself if he or she doesn’t “get it” and/or blaming the person themselves. Additionally, it sets up specific benchmarks that you can re-visit regarding their progress monthly during that first 90 days.

Ok, now let’s talk about an employee who has been in their role for a year…or more. First, if you’re a manager who has finally hit the wall of patience and now you want to fire the person, you may want to check a few things first. Have you been fully candid with the person about their performance and what needed to shift? Have you been clear about what you need from them in their role? My guess, and experience who leaders who find themselves in this situation is that this hasn’t occurred. This usually happens because most of us are not very comfortable giving feedback and so we withhold it and then finally, we can’t take it anymore and we drop a feedback bomb. If you’ve struggled with giving feedback, you can learn a lot more about it in the following shows we’ve done right here and here and also here. You can also listen to me cover an entire topic of feedback in this webinar I gave too.  Can you see how important that topic actually is? But, I digress.

Now, let’s stay that for the sake of argument you have given very clear feedback and expectations and things still aren’t working out. If you have, then finally having that last conversation shouldn’t be as difficult; it will be uncomfortable but not difficult. And this brings up the concept of what we call “high firing”. This means that we still value the person and that the behaviors are the area of focus. The other criteria we can consider to make the determination if it is time to let this person go is anyone who costs you time, energy or money three or more times. And we leave this person with the best of intentions for leaving the company.

  • Consider if you have someone on your team that has cost you time, money or energy three or more times; who’s performance issues have you been ignoring? How have you handled underperformance in a mindful and beneficial way for all parties?
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