How to Deal With Employees Performing Below Expectations

Philip Camilleri

Cofounder and CTO at Founderslist



Dealing with an underperforming employee is never easy and many managers defer uncomfortable situations. The reluctance to address the problem timely often results in further erosion of employees’ performance and affects other people on the team and beyond.

As a manager, I was too in a situation where I had to deal with an employee who was not showing up in the office, was missing meetings and failing to deliver as expected. I was troubled by what would be the best way to deal with an employee who isn’t performing as expected -- how could we improve on his/her performance and if that fails how to work our way out of that situation?

Actions taken

First and foremost, I tried to understand the problem in its entirety -- what was the problem with this person, was it about his colleagues or the work itself, were there some personal issues spilling over from home to a workplace, etc. Understanding that thoroughly extended over several months as I wanted to come up with the most comprehensive understanding of the problem. I talked to other team leads and wanted to learn more about their experience working with this person and how that had affected them. I realized that other teams also encountered difficulties working with him.

Then I started working with an executive coach or organizational psychologist to help me better understand the situation and manage the whole process. This external coach also had several conversations with this employee. He instantly grasped the severity of the problem when this employee, first rescheduled and then didn’t show up for a call with him. Clearly, there was a more profound, underlying problem that we had to address.

We had to put a process in place and since I never dealt with anything alike before I reached out to our HR person -- who also lacked experience in this area -- and eventually a lawyer who advised me on what I should be allowed to say and do as we went through the process.

Finally, I sat down with this person who himself was aware that some things were not working and wanted us to set up some goals to improve his performance. I, as a manager, and other team leads had certain expectations and we discussed what we could do together to hit those goals. Some of them had been quite simple and undemanding like being responsive to emails, being present at meetings, or communicating timely when he was prevented from attending those. We had several meetings setting some goals and benchmarks followed by an email that would outline key points and timeline and ensure that goals are clearly presented. That resembled most to a performance improvement plan but simplified. We did that for six months, with a month-long gap in between that allowed him to improve and us to set up new goals based on his performance. As things continuously failed to improve we had to repeatedly adjust the goals. I was reluctant to admit that things were not working and was keen to give him more time.

In the meantime, during our second and third meeting, we were joined by a head of HR who was more experienced and I was glad that I had someone else involved with whom I could share the burden of the problem.

During the whole process, I had to keep track of all the incidents and all the things that went wrong. Every time this person didn’t show up for work or a meeting or didn’t communicate that in advance I had to keep a log of those incidents. That allowed me to have a clear overview of the situation but to be able to share with him all incidents documented and accurately presented.

After six months we reached a point at which we realized that things were not working out. In the meantime, more team leads became vocal about their difficulties working with him, some projects on which he was involved were far behind the schedule, etc. It was the time when everything escalated to a CEO and when we could only review everything that was done in the past six months.

From the very beginning, we were very clear that he would have to improve or would face an unfavorable outcome. He was aware that we would come up with a plan for his gradual improvement and we would set realistic goals. Finally, we gave him another chance, we set some targets, and he again failed to deliver. We reached the end. We sat with HR and had to let go of him. He was not surprised, on the contrary. I was disappointed when he said that we were trying for quite a long time.

Lessons learned

  • We were quick to hire him as we needed to fill his role most urgently and I probably ignored some red flags that I shouldn’t have.
  • Be very clear what a specific role entails early on. Some misunderstandings were a result of some unclear expectations of how the company works, how the team works, etc. and that didn’t match his personal expectations. Therefore, be very clear how things should operate upfront. -Keep communications channels open. If there are things that aren’t working or are misaligned, make sure to communicate it timely. Informal communication is fine as long as things are within expectations, but once you would notice the pattern of underperformance, having a written trail is important. I learned from our HR people and lawyer that whenever I would have a conversation with this person I should send a follow-up email outlining what we talked about and agreed upon. Also, as those incidents became more serious, keeping a log of all his (omitted) actions is important as you will eventually have to answer questions like when something has started or when did you notice it first, what has happened or how things have improved, etc.
  • Involve different types of professionals to help you go through the process from HR people to legal advisors. Things might improve, but things might as well deteriorate to the point that you will have to let go of someone. Also, you will need to involve them in certain types of conversations and keep them in the loop, so everyone knows what is going on.
  • I was very reluctant to take any drastic action too soon. However, I realized that delaying the action was starting to affect other people on the team -- projects have been delayed, but more importantly people felt demotivated because something that needed to be fixed was not fixed sooner. Delaying itself won’t solve the problem. Some things will require some time, but delaying hoping for the best can make things worse.
  • Be transparent and inform other people on the team how things are developing and what actions are taken; the last thing you want is that people are informed by rumors circulating around. Be clear but again, without sharing too many personal details which are often hard to balance.
  • This is one of the worst things you will have to experience as a manager, but at the same time, you will be responsible to protect other people who are affected by it.

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Philip Camilleri

Cofounder and CTO at Founderslist

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentIndividual Contributor Roles

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