How to Help an Underperforming Worker in 6 Steps

number-rankings underperforming players

One of the most challenging tasks for any leader is figuring out what to do with an underperforming team member in your organization– a C player. The challenge is that your employee might be a good person, probably someone who has even bought into the values of your culture. The simple answer is to fire them and move on, but that isn’t the way to treat people. But they simply aren’t performing the way you need them to. So what do you do?

Step 1: Make Them Aware There’s An Issue

The first step in dealing with an underperforming employee is to make them aware that they are, in fact, underperforming. Simple, right? And you need to be as specific as possible about where they are falling short, which means it helps to bring data with you to prove your case. It’s also something you need to do as soon as you know it’s happening–regardless of whether they just joined the company three months ago or even if they just had their annual review. The point is that you can’t afford to wait until an end-of-year review to let them know that a problem exists; it needs to happen immediately.

Step 2: Offer Coaching for Improvement

Once you have let your employee know that they are underperforming, there are some things you can do to help coach them to improve their performance. Before you get there, though, you need that employee to “own” the fact that they are falling short in their performance. If you can’t break through to them at that level, then your conversation, and their time with the organization, will become very short.

But, if your employee does own their performance–and commits to improving it–then you can work together to put a plan in place to get their performance up to standard. If your employee works in sales, say, and is only closing five deals a month and they should be closing 15 or more, you can ask them what they will do differently to reach that new level. You can then begin a monitoring program where you see how that new plan of action is working. Where are they after 15 days? At 30? If they aren’t tracking toward their goal, then you know you have a problem on your hands and can begin planning your next move.

Step 3: Educate Them

It’s possible that your employee might actually lack the skills they need to perform their job well. That’s an opportunity to offer them the chance to learn those skills that will help elevate their performance. But remember, this is a short-term effort targeted specifically at helping them learn the skills to do their job better. It’s not about offering to pay someone to go get his or her MBA.

Step 4: Shrink Their Job

Sometimes, especially in the case of fast-growing companies, employees find that the company’s growth outpaces their own ability to keep up. You see that a lot with managers and executives who excel during the early years of a startup but begin to fall behind as the company continues to scale up. One of the options you can employ to help an underperformer is to break up the job as a way to make it more manageable.

Take a sales and marketing leader, as an example. Perhaps you could divide up the job into sales and marketing, leaving the incumbent in one of the roles and hiring the other. While this can often be effective, it also involves someone checking his or her ego at the door to make it work–which isn’t always possible.

Step 5: Change Their Position

If you have an employee who continues to underperform despite the help of coaching, training, and shrinking their job, your option of last resort might be to move them into a different position in the organization where they might be a better fit. Think about a salesperson who you might move into more of a product support role where they can worry more about helping other salespeople be successful rather than filling their own quota. Again, you might encounter ego issues with such a move. But it’s advisable to keep that person’s salary the same even after the shift as a way to mitigate that. They might not get any raises for a while, but it will help them keep a positive mindset as they attempt to scale up into the new position.

Step 6: Exit Time

If you’ve done everything possible to put your C player in a position to succeed without success, then it’s time to exit that person from the organization. If it comes down to this, you can give your employee the chance to take the soft road out, wherein you give them three months or so to find a new job as a way to avoid terminating them directly. This strategy is generally in place of a severance arrangement.

But, if that, too, doesn’t work out, you’ll eventually need to make the hard decision to terminate them with the hope that they’ll find a new job soon.

Obviously no one likes to terminate anyone. But it’s essential for you, as the leader, to remember that your organization can’t afford to rely on C players for its future success. Ultimately, the organization is looking at you to be the Head Coach and make changes on the team if needed. If you aren’t, they begin to wonder if you aren’t a C….

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