Managing underperforming staff

February 28, 2011

A recent survey commissioned by ExpertHR found that 60% of employers were not confident in their line managers’ ability to manage underperforming staff. It highlighted the areas of concern as being dealing with sickness, capability, attitude, poor standards of work and not meeting objectives. That is quite damming stuff, a bit like saying they are good managers providing everyone works hard, is highly motivated and never cause problems. However it is when things aren’t working well, when problems have occurred and where there are issues in a team that the manager should really start performing.

If they are in charge of logistics, you can be pretty sure they will intervene to try and make sure things arrive at the right place on time, if they are responsible for customers they’ll jump in if a customer complains, and if they are accountable for production they will weigh in if the number of faulty goods coming off the production line rises. This is what they expect to do and what they are often very good at. But if they are responsible for staff shouldn’t they be able to show the same level of skill, knowledge or experience? Shouldn’t they be able to deal with the person who takes a sicky every fortnight, the team member who upsets their work colleagues, the individual who always makes mistakes or doesn’t finish what they start?

If they can cover the poor performance, make contingency plans to deal with the sickness absence and make sure certain team members don’t work together, does it even matter if they don’t know how to deal with the issues?

I believe the answer is yes. It does matter. We have been called in to businesses many times when the owner or manager has reached the end of their tether. The amount of sick days being taken has started to effect bottom line, the atmosphere is getting so bad their good employees are muttering about leaving, staff members are making complaints about their colleagues, the person on long term sick has requested their holiday pay for untaken holiday while they have been ill. They often talk about not having done anything before because they didn’t want to “rock the boat”, come over as the bad boss, or disrupt work. I believe these types of reasons mask another and that is that they are uncomfortable and nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing and making the problem worse than it is, especially when they hear horror stories about industrial tribunals and massive payouts.

Managers and business owners need three things to help them manage underperforming staff.

  • Good policies and procedures to deal the issues (sickness policy, disciplinary procedure etc). These need to be easy to follow, up to date and in line with ACAS recommendations
  • An understanding of these policies – the number of people who tell us that yes they have a policy, but no they don’t know what is in it is far too high!
  • Training.  – It is OK having handbooks covering every eventuality but unless you give managers the opportunity to practice carrying them out, to learn how to deal with different responses and to gain an understanding of why a procedure is laid out in a certain way, they will not have the confidence to act and to deal with a problem before it escalates.

Of course there is a cost involved in this but getting trained to deal with underperformance can have a healthy effect on the bottom line of your company, reducing costs, and improving performance and team motivation.

A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted: “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman below replied: “You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You are 51º21,32.87 degrees north latitude and 0º21,32.87 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be an IT specialist,” said the balloonist.

” I am,” replied the woman. “How did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help so far.”

The woman below responded: “You must be in HR.”

“I am, “replied the balloonist. “But how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”