What to Do When You Inherit a Low-Performing Employee

In an ideal world, a new manager would have the opportunity to select and hire exactly the team he or she wants, and pay those employees exactly what they're worth.  Unfortunately, it rarely works that way.  Instead, a new manager is likely to be confronted with a mixed bag of good performers who may or may not be at the right level of seniority and compensation, and possibly one or more employees who have been allowed to perform at mediocre levels for an extended period of time.  This usually occurs because the new manager's predecessor was unwilling or possibly even unable to hold the poor performers accountable or get rid of them.

Regardless of the reason for the tolerated poor performance, the new manager's goals and resources are rarely adjusted to account for the problem, so something has to be done.

Give the employee a chance.

The first thing to do is to clarify what the poor performance really is, and what the possible causes are.  If those things are not readily apparent, this assessment can help.  It may be the case that the employee just needs a bit more guidance and support, and then he or she will be able to do the work at the desired level.  Sometimes, new employees don't get the necessary context and training to help them adapt to the organization's particular culture and ways of doing things.  

There are also cases where the employee has a very different idea of what his or her job actually is, either because of a miscommunication during the hiring process or an evolution of the team over time that was not clearly articulated.  

In a best-case scenario, there are ways to get the employee up to par with a combination of communication and targeted coaching.  It's worthwhile to try your best to see if you can get the employee to the desired level and avoid writing him or her off without evidence.

Figure out where your boss stands.

If coaching and communication don't work, or if the employee's poor performance is too egregious to even try, then you need to have a candid conversation with your boss.  If possible, get copies of the employee's prior performance reviews from HR prior to the conversation, so that you have a sense of what has been documented about the employee's performance.  You may find that the reviews are shockingly positive because your predecessor(s) didn't want to confront the employee.  While this doesn't mean that the employee can't be terminated, it does mean it might take a bit longer, and it will be crucial for you to follow your organization's policies regarding progressive discipline closely.  
In your conversation with your boss, lay out the performance issues and the impact they're having on the team's ability to meet its goals.  Try to keep the conversation on behaviors and concrete effects as much as you can, even if a huge part of the problem is the employee's overall attitude.  Your boss may have insight on how long the performance issue has been going on and why it has been tolerated.  You may discover in this meeting that your boss will not back you up in taking formal action regarding the employee's performance.  While this is frustrating and disheartening, it's important to know this before you start trying to hold the employee accountable.  The last thing you want it is to throw down an ultimatum that you can't enforce.  If, however, your boss is willing to support you, then you'll have a lot more options.

Determine how helpful HR could be.

Your boss will also be able to give you insight on how helpful (or not) the Human Resources department is likely to be.  In some organizations, HR is a fantastic resource for managers and can provide ideas and guidance on a range of challenging issues. If this is your organization, count your lucky stars and leverage them any time you feel stuck.  

Unfortunately, other organizations, especially smaller ones, have an HR department that is focused mainly on signing people up for benefits and posting job ads, and they may have limited experience or skill in dealing with employee performance issues.  Depending on where your particular HR department falls (likely somewhere in the middle), you can decide whether or not to reach out to them.  

If you are planning to fire the employee, then you absolutely must talk to them because it's important to document everything properly and ensure that you're not putting the organization at legal risk for wrongful termination.  However, if you are just coaching the employee, you can use your judgment as to whether or not to reach out.

Know that it's okay to be the boss.

Regardless of the approach you end up taking, it's important to know that you as the manager have both the right and the responsibility to hold the employee accountable, regardless of what your predecessor did or didn't allow.  

Granted, you'll want to be sure that your boss will back you if the employee tries to go over your head, which is why it's so important to meet with your boss before taking any action.  The employee will almost definitely push back, especially if the previous manager let them do certain things over a long period of time.  It's not unreasonable to give the employee a period of time to transition to the new way of doing things (we're talking weeks, not months), but the fact that it was allowed before doesn't mean you have to continue to allow it.  It's okay to raise standards and expectations.   Some employees won't like it, and you'll need to think through the possible impacts to morale before you implement significant changes, but at the end of the day, you're in the leadership role for a reason.  

That's not to say you should be a crazy dictator, of course.  There should be good reasons for the changes, and you should be open to employee feedback that is reasonable.   However, you are the one who will be held accountable for the team's results, and you need to do what's right for the organization.  The high-performing employees on the team will appreciate your raising the standards and holding people accountable.

Options for when you can't fire a low performer

What if you can't fire anyone?  It's interesting that, even though many states are at-will and most organizations have clear progressive discipline policies, it is surprisingly hard to get rid of employees who are performing poorly.  Some organizations pride themselves on being "a family" and therefore want to keep everyone even if it's creating a dysfunctional family, others are just so skittish about potential lawsuits that they don't want to risk potential litigation.  In most cases, though, it's just pure and simple conflict avoidance.  Whatever the reason, if you find yourself in one of these organizations, your ability to hold low-performers accountable will be limited.  However, that doesn't mean you can't do anything.  Here are a few strategies to try.

Give your high performers more attention.

Make sure you tell your high performers that they're doing well, and specifically how they're contributing to the team's success.  A low performer often sucks up a disproportionate amount of the manager's time and attention, and it looks to high performers as if the low performer is being rewarded for low performance.  Balance that out by really making an effort to recognize and appreciate those who are doing good work.  Even if they're always doing good work, keep recognizing it.  It matters.

Micro-manage (just this once).

Set weekly expectations for the low performer, and ask them about what they've done each week.  If they don't follow through on something, ask them why and what they plan to do differently in the future.  This is basically the one time where micromanaging makes sense.  Yes, it's a pain for you, but it's the way to get at least some work from them, and it's also a way of holding them accountable when you don't have any other means at your disposal.  To be clear, this is not to be punitive and purposely make their lives miserable - it's to get the team results you need.  If they start doing better, then you can back off a little.  If they don't start doing better, then daily check-ins might be in order.  (Hopefully it won't come to that - miserable for everyone involved, and you probably don't have the time for it!)

Do not give the low performer any perks that you aren't required to give them.

Low performance means that they are not entitled to things like flexible schedules, telecommuting, bonuses, etc., if those perks are up to manager discretion.  It is incredibly frustrating for your high performers to watch the low performer get everything that they get even though there is a huge difference in contribution, so think of this as a reward for your high performers more than punishment for your low performer.  Make members of your team earn their perks, and use the perks as a performance differentiator.  (This is particularly important in organizations where pay is not well-differentiated based on performance.)  

Low performers should not get pay increases unless absolutely required.  It sends the wrong message, and it decreases the amount available for you to give high performers.  You may even want to see if you can avoid giving cost-of-living increases to those who are not doing what they should be doing.  

In all cases of withholding pay increases or perks, make it clear how the bonuses, increases, perks, etc., are tied to performance, and not anything personal about the employees.  Everyone on the team needs to be clear what it takes to earn these rewards, and also to know that it isn't based on other, potentially illegal criteria such as race, sex, religion, etc.

Dealing with performance issues isn't fun for anyone involved.  It's part of why managers get paid the big(ger) bucks.  The sooner you address the situation and figure out what your options really are, the better off everyone on your team will be, and the sooner you can start setting realistic goals of what the team can really do.

Related resources

  • Crucial Accountability book by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, and Switzler
  • Blog post for motivation on confronting performance issues: "Are you inadvertently being cruel to your employees?"
  • Tool for assessing the underlying causes of poor performance

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