Tips for improving an underachieving employee’s performance

Tips for improving an underachieving employee’s performance

You’re about to start work on a quarterly report, but suddenly you realize you haven’t received the statistics you requested from one of your employees. You send her a quick email to remind her, and she responds saying she’ll send them over as soon as she’s finished them.

Hours go by. You reach a point in the report where you absolutely need the statistics or you’re stuck. So you walk over to your employee’s desk… only to find her feverishly trying to fill out spreadsheets that should have been completed by five o’clock yesterday. Clearly, she’s nowhere near finished, and looking over her shoulder, you can already see a number of mistakes. Your heart sinks. You know that first, you’ll have to cancel your plans for the evening because you’ll be cranking out the statistics until the wee hours of the morning. And second, it’s time to step in and make a plan to improve your employee’s performance.

If this sounds familiar, then it’s good to know that you’re not alone. As a manager, you’re responsible for your employees’ performance. Not only that, but ideally, you’ll provide your people with the resources and support to optimize their performance. Naturally, everybody can have a bad day or even a bad week, but if someone’s performance is consistently subpar, you need to take action to improve it. Keep the following tips in mind.

  1. Establish performance expectations. During your employee’s onboarding process, responsibilities and expectations should have been clearly set out. However, sometimes things get lost in the overwhelming amount of new information. So before you take any action, have a conversation with your employee to determine whether she knows exactly what is expected of her. In the best-case scenario, she simply wasn’t aware, and a quick correction resolves the issue of underperformance.
  2. Determine where the problem lies. If the employee is clear on expectations, have an open and non-judgmental conversation to find out where the problem is. If there are tasks where she consistently makes mistakes or areas where she doesn’t feel confident, make a note of them. Your only goal at this point is to figure out which points need improvement. 
  3. Create a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Rob Carey writing for the National Center for the Middle Market advises making a step-by-step improvement plan for the employee. Set objectives, then work backwards to figure out mini-steps. Factor in additional support and resources, for example on-the-job training, a mentor, and opportunities to attend conferences or other industry events. It’s key to discuss the PIP with your employee and tweak any areas where she has valid concerns. For example, if you want her to improve her skills in a specific app, she might share that she has difficulty learning quickly and would do better with a longer period of time. Once you both agree that the objectives are realistic and the resources are solid, secure the employee’s written agreement. This will enhance her feeling of accountability.
  4. Assess progress regularly. You should make sure to assess the employee’s progress on the agreed dates, but it’s also a good idea to check in informally throughout the week. That way, if she’s feeling stuck or overwhelmed, you can work through it together.
  5. Acknowledge and reward improvement. In her Entrepreneur article titled “9 Ways to Manage Underperforming Employees,” Abigail Phillips emphasizes the value of recognizing improvement and rewarding it. This can be as simple as “I see you did a great job on the statistics this time! Thank you!” or more formally by means of a meeting or group email to recognize her efforts in front of her coworkers.

Helping your employee improve her performance takes time and effort. But ultimately, since better individual performance leads to better company performance, it pays off for everybody involved.