Hoping Underperformers Will Improve Doesn’t Work

These are tough situations, but managers have plenty of options to find resolutions

By Paul Bergeron June 13, 2022
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Randy Anderson, founder of E3 Professional Trainers in Lubbock, Texas, speaks at SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022.

​Randy Anderson, founder of E3 Professional Trainers in Lubbock, Texas, speaks at SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022. Photo by Sam Segal.

​A self-proclaimed jokester, presenter Randy Anderson began his concurrent session, "Confronting Lovable Underperformers and Landmine Employees" by stating, "I want you to fire all of your underperformers."

Adding, "Wouldn't it be great if you could do that, because today, there are so many of them."

Anderson, founder of E3 Professional Trainers in Lubbock, Texas, told his SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 audience on June 13 in New Orleans that firing all underperformers simply is not doable, but when companies and their HR teams don't quickly correct those situations, they will create a persistent problem that negatively affects many facets of their operations.

"Your good people will leave, and those who do stay will change their work habits, so your companies' standards will fall and mediocrity will become acceptable," Anderson said.

Nurturing Can Work for Some Employees

He said managers' typical responses are to ignore the situation, hoping it gets better; begin protecting and defending these underperformers; or nurture the employees.

The first two are ineffective, but the third could lead to improvement—if the employees recognize their deficiencies and are willing to work toward getting better.

"Nurturing requires a structured plan with clear goals and expectations and steady feedback from the supervisor," he said.

But don't be surprised if employees become defiant or act surprised when presented with that plan, Anderson added.

"Some will even start an internal PR campaign in the office, telling co-workers about management's ineffectiveness," he said.

No Employee Is Irreplaceable

Anderson said managers must realize that no employee is irreplaceable. "If you think that, then the employee is in full control of their situation," he said.

Instead, managers should look for signs of progress from employees and extend grace periods to workers who they can see "are trying."

Unfortunately, if the manager doesn't give regular—almost daily—attention to some of those staff members, they will often resort to their former, unproductive ways. At that point, managers and supervisors must decide if they want to help them to succeed or help them to leave.

Maybe a Promotion? (Seriously)

It could be a matter of the underperforming employees being placed in the wrong position, one that doesn't allow them to use their strengths. Sometimes a position's responsibilities shift due to changing circumstances, setting workers up to not do well, Anderson said.

He recalled one example where a salesperson was not particularly strong at giving attention to details but she was likable, so he gave her a raise and made her a receptionist—a position she's thrived in to this day.

Assess First, Then Create an Action Plan

To measure whether a worker could benefit from a change, a manager should consider whether the employee has the right tools and training, as well as sound teammates. Also consider, Anderson said, whether the supervisor is the adversary in this situation.

The key to helping underperformers is presenting them with an effective action plan, Anderson said.

That includes conveying the specific things the employee must do or the behaviors they must change and setting actionable goals.

"Let them know they can go about making the change in whatever manner they wish," Anderson said. "In other words, it doesn't have to be done the supervisor's way, as long as the employee doesn't go to court, go to jail, go to the hospital or way overspend to make it happen."

He said clarity is vital so that employees know how they will be measured and what their rewards will be if they meet their goals—and what the consequences will be if they don't.

Anderson suggested supervisors hold regular one-on-one meetings with employees to hold them accountable.

When companies take these proper, timely, proactive steps, they can often resolve underperformer situations.

"We heard a lot from companies that said one benefit to the pandemic and its layoffs was that they were able to get rid of a lot of people they had been meaning to let go," Anderson said. "It should never get to the situation where a life-changing event is needed to properly manage employees."

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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