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How Do You Handle an Underperforming Employee

Managing Expectations

28 July, 2020

Arun Krishnaswamy
Arun Krishnaswamy

Director at Workday

Arun Krishnaswamy, Director of Data Science at Workday, explains how he defines underperformance and how that affects his handling of underperforming employees.


When I think of underperformance, I think of a pattern of inefficiency. Individual incidents of underperformance could happen anytime, to anyone -- people have bad days or bad sprints or go through some personal problems, but as a manager, I never focus too much on isolated incidents. Instead, I look closely at those incidents over an extended period of several months to be able to establish if there is a pattern of inefficiency.

Actions taken

Have a very open conversation with an underperforming employee and share your observations. Your observations should be corroborated with documentation; for each incident or an underperforming situation, provide documentation to support your observation. For each incident, describe the person’s behavior and compare it with the expectations of what should have been done.

For example, a person consistently sends out emails to other teams asking for help but fails to provide sufficient context. A lot of time is being spent on the back-and-forth clarification of the context. A person’s behavior: I stumbled across something and I’m immediately sending out a request for help. Expectation: Think through before sending an email and clearly explain the context; put yourself in another person’s shoes and try to see things from that person’s perspective. Also, expectations could vary along the career ladder. Engineers are notorious for rushing to implementation without much thinking and would refactor the code hundreds of times before doing software design first. While this is acceptable behavior for junior people, senior engineers shouldn’t be doing this.

Oftentimes there is an ambiguity with expectations. Nine out of ten times people are surprised when cornered out and told that they are not performing well. A crucial element in dealing with underperforming employees is bridging the gap between their assumed expectations and yours -- sometimes unverbalized or unreplicated. I would iron out any ambiguity during our regular one-on-ones. I would further follow up on those expectations and provide feedback on their improvement. For employees who have been there for a long time and became habitual with some behaviors that may not come easy, but if they understand correctly my intentions and that I’m doing this for their own benefit they would open up to change.

Lessons learned

  • Firing someone is a way too easy and you should always consider all other options. Work with people and give them some time and enable them to understand their own mistakes. Many companies let go of an employee who was not performing well before having even one single conversation with him/her. As a manager, I am very obsessive about the performance and happiness of my employees.
  • Don’t make it personal at any moment. Your conversation should be well-structured and you should use the same template for multiple people. Needless to say, be cognizant of and avoid being biased. Always follow up and be very diligent about it. Managing people is a serious thing, far more serious than technical management. Approach it with empathy and care, showing that you are genuinely trying to help your employees.

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