Now, this is not a fun subject. But it’s an important one. It doesn’t matter the size of a business, having an under-performing staff member is a major issue.

Many of my corporate roles involved taking on a team in disarray, with the expectation that at least some of those people should leave the organisation. Now, you might think that my job therefore was to ‘fire’ them, but in fact, that’s not the case at all. Your job as a manager is to understand why things aren’t working and then figure out what to do about it.

There can be many reasons that someone is struggling at work, and without understanding why, you’ll never sort things out. And you might just lose someone with great potential in the process.

Alternatively, if you’re a ‘people person’ – and most advisers are – you may well be inclined to stick your head firmly in the sand, your fingers in your ears and just hope that things get better. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s unlikely. And worse, if someone isn’t doing their fair share, it’s likely that your other team members are covering for them. For which they will resent you for not dealing with it and instead pushing the extra work/rework onto them.

So, if we agree that you have to act, then what should you do? That’s right team, it’s time to put your detective hat on! Managers and business owners wear many different hats, what’s one more, right?

The first thing you need to do is find out if this person understands what their job is. It sounds bleeding obvious, but you’d be surprised the number of people who just ‘do stuff’ at work and don’t really understand where they fit into the business, how they add value, or why they are there at all.

It can help to make a list of all the things this person does, and sort them into high, medium and low value. Then sit down with your employee and go through what you see as high value and why. They may well be surprised at what you really value. And you might surprised at what else should be on that list that they do that you weren’t aware of.

Without clear expectations of what their job is, you’re going to find it very difficult to instigate anything vaguely ‘performance management’ related. And frankly, if they don’t know what their job is, then that’s your problem to fix, not theirs!

Once you are both on the same page around what they should be doing with their time, then you can both clearly see whether or not they are meeting expectations.

If things haven’t improved, then you need to start digging a little deeper. There’s really only a few reasons why people stuff up at work:

  1. The person is missing a key skill (I once had someone join my team who didn’t know how to book a meeting using the calendar function in Microsoft Outlook. Things got much better once we figured that out).
  2. There’s something going on AT work that means their cognitive ability has taken a beating. This could be as serious as bullying or sexual harassment or as mundane as a workload that’s just too high for one person which is causing undue stress and misery.
  3. There’s something going on outside work that means their cognitive ability has taken a beating.
  4. They just don’t really want to be in this role anymore and have lost interest.

Options 1 and 2 are of course clearly in your remit, and as a manager/business owner, they are your job to sort out.

Option 3 is much more tricky, but as someone told me once, ‘You don’t get paid to make the easy decisions Sarah’.

Many people don’t want to bring their personal life into work, and while you don’t want to pry, you do want your people to feel comfortable coming to you if the wheels are falling off at home. And of course, it’s worth noting that someone can 1, 2 or even 3 of these happening at once.

My personal approach is to make sure Options 1 and 2 are well and truly covered off before assuming/asking/anything re option 3. You need to be very sure that your employee has clear (and reasonable) expectations, the right tools AND the right skills first.

And option 4 only happens rarely. In fact, in my management career (now 20+ years), I could count on one hand the times that this has been the issue. Unfortunately however, this is often the reason cited for under-performance, but I implore you to look more closely before writing someone off.

One of the most rewarding aspects of managing people is seeing them succeed. And that, dear reader, has an awful lot to do with you, their manager. You have the power. Use it wisely.

Sarah Penn is the CEO of Mayflower Consulting. Her firm focuses on the intersection between client experience, staff management and regtech. Prior to founding Mayflower in 2013, Sarah worked at Macquarie Bank as a Division Director across a number of business areas including super, funds management, mortgages and financial planning software.
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