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Good Question: How Do I Connect With a Poor Performing Employee?

Q: “I’ve recently been put in charge of a new team at work. Despite my busy workday, I put in a lot of time and effort to keep my staff motivated. While I feel I mostly excel at this, I have one employee that is simply suffering. This employee more frequently calls in sick, shows up late, and is generally less productive than my other team members. I have tried reaching out to see if they need extra time with me, or better direction from me as a manager. Their response is always no. I sometimes worry that I am not approachable by this staff member, but I don’t seem to have this problem with the rest of my team. How can I reach out to ensure I have given this employee a fair chance at exceptional performance?”


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WHY ASK HER Sari is a leading professional in human resources, and is currently an HR consultant and career coach in Toronto. She has held titles such as Recruitment and Development Manager for National Post, and Vice President of Human Resources at Gorrie Marketing.


A: It’s not surprising to hear that you have been spending a lot of your time managing your team and keeping them motivated. Managing people, especially for new managers, can be very time consuming. It’s great that you’re reaching out for help regarding your less productive employee. Some of the qualities that make for a strong manager are judgement skills and resourcefulness and you’re definitely exhibiting both in this situation. Here is some guidance on how to deal with a subpar employee.


As you have done in this case, the manager needs to note what the lacking or offending behaviour is. Ideally you would observe a number of specific behaviours and/or occurrences. Quantifying and qualifying the issues helps us have a clearer idea of what the issues are and when they are occurring. This also helps to alleviate any biases that may be affecting our judgement. Then we can have a more accurate and relevant conversation with the employee regarding the issues.

Raise Awareness

Set up a time to meet with the employee to let him or her know that you have concerns about his or her behaviour and/or attitude. Sometimes, letting someone know there’s an issue gets you to the solution much more quickly. For example, there may be an issue outside of work that is affecting their performance at work and letting them know you’re noticing this can prompt them to seek support so they can re-focus on work or perhaps take some time off if needed. If as it has happened in your case, the employee does not offer an explanation for their lacking performance nor have they improved it since you ‘raised awareness’, then it’s time for performance management.

Performance Management

Use performance management to clearly articulate the expectations for the role – including attendance as well as on-the-job performance. Be very specific about what the expectations are and quantify them as much as possible (for example: complete 4 reports per day). Offer any training or development that may be needed to meet the goals. Meet with this employee two times per week to discuss their performance and hopefully their progress. If there is progress, then you can reduce this to 1 time per week and then 1 time per month until they are ready to be on the same performance management plan as the rest of the employees, which would ideally be quarterly.

If this approach doesn’t work, then you can think about parting ways with the employee and you can feel good about knowing that as a manager, you did everything you could to ensure the employee could succeed.


LianeDavey2WHY ASK HER Dr. Liane is a facilitator, author, speaker on building effective teams, and building leadership effectiveness. She is the author of “You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done”.

Liane has also been a speaker at various Women of Influence events

A: First off, you should feel good about your sensitivity to the challenges this team member is having. Many managers would just write the person off without being willing to consider their own role in the situation. You’re obviously seeing this as a two-person problem with a two-person solution. Brava!

To set a person up to succeed, a manager can ensure four things: 1) the person knows what to do; 2) they know how to do it; 3) have the resources to do it; and 4) the motivation to do it. Work through each of these in turn.


One thing that worries me in your question is your positioning that your help is optional. Time to stop offering help and start giving it. First up is a really clear description of what you expect. When do you expect the person to be at the office; how do you expect them to make up for time away; what volume of work do you expect them to complete; what quality of work are you looking for? Be direct: “I want to make sure my expectations are clear.” “You are not living up to these expectations at the moment.”


It’s possible that the person just doesn’t feel capable of meeting your expectations. See if you can get some insight into how big a change your expectations are from the leader before you. For the next little while, when you give an assignment, ask “how are you going to go about this?” If the answer is weak, there might be additional training or coaching required. If formal training isn’t an option, suggest working on a first draft together or pairing the person up with someone who has more experience.


It’s a long shot, but you want to make sure that there aren’t any resources missing. Do they have the software, the relationships, the information required to do their job? You might need to remove some barriers to give the person access to the tools to do the job.


Here’s the hard one. Without the motivation to do the job, it’s just not going to happen. You can increase the motivation both positively (by recognizing and encouraging early signs of success) and negatively (by outlining the consequence of continued poor performance). In the end, you can be motivated for someone.

You can try each of these approaches better position your employee to succeed. Once you have tried them, you have held up your end of the bargain. Now it’s your employee’s turn. If you don’t see a change in the behaviour, you need to escalate the consequences and ultimately remove them from the team. Remember, your obligation is ultimately to the whole team and to the organization.


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WHY ASK HER After 20 years in the field of organizational psychology, Julie is well versed in team alignment and synergy, selection practise optimization and accelerated talent development.


A: First of all, congratulations on the positive impact you seem to have as a manager for your new team. Also, the fact that you want to make sure you have done everything to foster exceptional performance is a great sign of leadership. Here are some tips:


Take time to chat with the employee on an informal basis: Find out why the employee has joined the team, hobbies, what turns a normal day into a great day at work, and outside of work, etc. Find common grounds, and show you care. Getting to know each other is the first step to fostering a trusting relationship, and mutual trust is necessary to provide high performance a fair chance.


Gather all relevant information on the employee that will help you diagnose whether the attendance and performance issues are chronic or situational. You also need to search for cues on the root cause of the problem: is it a question of capacity, willingness or availability to perform? Ask for the employee track record, talk to previous team leaders, and make your own judgment based on observations and open discussions. Don’t just focus on the gap with expectations; also try to discover the person’s true talents and how the organization could better capitalize on them.

Set precise expectations

In some cases, even a statement such as “I expect you to arrive on time” may not be precise enough, as there are significant personal and cultural differences in how “on time” is interpreted. The more efficient you are as a manager to set explicit targets, the more likely your employees are to meet them. Beyond setting expectations, taking the time to discuss why it is important, not only for you as a manager, but for the clients, and the whole team, is key to employee mobilization.

Build mutual commitment to a plan

In order to help the employee succeed, you need to build a plan together, and get the employee’s commitment to make it happen. Make sure you don’t do all the work for the employee. Let the employee come up with potential solutions, in order to optimize sense of ownership and accountability. Challenge options, offer suggestions, and provide support. In the end, get the employee’s commitment to the plan and the expected results.

Measure and follow-up

Measures and follow-ups are indeed necessary to ensure a plan is deployed and generates sustainable change. If results are achieved, it is an opportunity to provide recognition, and if not, you can draw conclusions with the conviction that you have done all you could to get the best out of your employee.


A version of this appears in print in our Fall 2015 Women of Influence Magazine, Pages 16-17.