Bakers Journal

Improving underperformers

March 6, 2014
By Alex Gallacher

March 6, 2014 – Improving your underperformers is not about excuses. It is about understanding what is
really going on in order to truly help enable employee performance.

Improving your underperformers is not about excuses. It is about understanding what is
really going on in order to truly help enable employee performance.

You first need to know what is going on with the particular
employee. Is there anything else going on in their job, the work environment,
with co-workers, with a supervisor, or more broadly in their life that is
precluding them from performing?  Let’s
face it, most people don’t wake up in the morning and think to themselves:  “How do I steal from my employer by doing a
lousy job?” The reason for this is that people normally associate feelings of safety
with remaining employed. This is normally not assured with blatant or
continuing underperformance on their part. 


If you can alleviate or improve upon whatever is hampering
your apparent underperformer’s work, the problem is often resolved quickly. Having
worked with hundreds of small to mid-sized employers since 2004, we know this
can involve many factors: 

  • a lack of knowing what exactly is expected at a level they
    really understand, and can therefore act upon
  • a poor manager who demotivates
  • personal problems that are distracting their focus from timely,
    accurate work 

This is not about excuses. It is about understanding what is
really going on in order to truly help enable employee performance. This is
also not about prying too deeply into an employee’s personal life. Instead, it
is about asking, respectfully and supportively, how you can help remove
potential barriers to their individual performance. 

The difference between success and failure here is often
driven by your approach. Help is usually accepted; blame is usually deflected. As
a bonus, helpful employers usually ends up earning the trust and respect of
their employees, the number 1 driver of their, and increasingly your,

If, after understanding what is really going on with a
particular employee, you still believe it is a performance problem, ask them
how you might be able to help them perform better in their job? Nicely, calmly,
usually privately, and in a spirit of discovery, while taking notes, ask them: “How
could we as an organization, or me as a leader here, enable you to perform
better in your role?” 

Listen carefully to their responses, and let them come back
to you if they want to think about it for a day or two. Maybe they need some
training, coaching, mentoring, support, tools, safety gear, ventilation, or
potentially something else. Enable them if it seems reasonable. Normally, by
working with someone to get their performance level up, the sheer fact that you’re
doing so provides an improvement. This is because you are positively impacting
their self-esteem, plus the additional gains you are likely to discover. 

Finally, if and when you and/or your qualified human
resources consultant has completed the diagnostic work required to determine
that there is an actual individual performance problem, then, and only then,
should you consider additional action. 

For a typical small to mid-sized employer, this will involve
a progressive discipline process as laid out in your HR policies  and procedures documentation, tied back to
their employment agreement. This normally starts with a verbal warning, working
through one or more written warnings, moving up to a formal performance
improvement plan, and failing improvement, potential termination, normally “without
cause” in a legal sense. Pay in lieu of notice, statutory severance, career
transition and common-law considerations should all be contemplated. In
reality, these parting goodies, as they are often viewed, are to provide a
bridge for the employee as they work to find their next employer. You are also
covering off some of their basic physiological and safety needs in the process.
Don’t begrudge them: it’s wasted energy. We recommend you pay up and move

Alex Gallacher CHRP, SHRP, is managing director of ENGAGE
HR™. He can be reached at

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