How to handle an underperforming employee

Rich Sun

Sr Technical Director, Game Studio at Netflix



"A few years ago, I was leading a team of engineers and one of them was not performing as well as I'd hoped. His tasks would be marked as completed, yet were often buggy or missing important functionality."

Actions taken

"It became a pattern, so we ended up setting up a formal Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). It's hard to know how people will react to this type of measure and in this case, he was initially surprised and unhappy. However, the next day he had processed everything, and he acknowledged his failures, recognized that the feedback was purely about objective observed results rather than a personal judgment, and was ready to take on the challenge of the PIP." "In the following months, he took my feedback into account, enacted various changes to address the observed issues, and he made a huge turnaround to become one of the team's top performers, making this story an example of the absolute best possible outcome of this situation."

Lessons learned

"While this story has a happy ending, I still consider this a failure on my part as a manager, because he was surprised, and he shouldn't have been. I should have been able to more effectively surface and coach improvement in our regular 1:1s before a formal, heavy-handed tool such as a PIP was needed." "A PIP will not always have as positive an outcome like the one described here, and a manager should be aware that, without very careful handling, it could have a very negative impact on the employee in question." "Your staff should know if they are performing as expected or not, and should be told what those expectations are on a regular basis. If you believe that your employee is underperforming, clarify your expectations and tell them as soon as possible that they are performing below your expectations. Always bring concrete examples and link behavior to their outcomes." "Disconnected feedback is rarely actionable, and risks incorrect interpretations. Formal HR tools like the PIP shouldn't be a surprise for an employee and should be a tool for when your regular tools such as 1:1's are failing. In order to have a chance of success, for both 1:1's and PIPs, it's critical that the manager makes an earnest and well-communicated commitment to being a partner in this person's personal development, and actually spends time doing so."

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Rich Sun

Sr Technical Director, Game Studio at Netflix

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