Teaching the ABCs of Business
Guide: Understanding Underperformance
                 By John D. Collins

The following set of questions can assist supervisors to identify common reasons why an employee may be under performing.  Most workplace performance issues are under the control of the supervisor and employee.  Once identified, the supervisor and employee can work together to rectify them. 

It’s the supervisor’s responsibility to select, orient, and train the employee so that the employee is properly equipped before the supervisor can fully expect that the employee can perform at an acceptable level.  As functions of leadership, a supervisor has the additional responsibilities to provide feedback to employees and to foster an environment that supports personal growth.  If the supervisor can identify the reason or reasons why an employee is under performing, then the supervisor must work with the employee to develop and execute a personal developmental plan and work with the employee to bring the performance to acceptable levels. 

When defined in writing, work and performance expectations are not left up for constant interpretation, negotiation, or renegotiation. A supervisor’s position description identifies authorities and responsibilities the supervisor has been assigned, sets expectations, and is signed off by the CEO or owner, indicating her or his support and agreement. The goal for the supervisor is to work through others.  The subordinate’s position description defines duties and tasks, clarifies expectations, explains measures of performance, and defines what the position does.  Since guesswork and negotiation has been eliminated or at least minimized by the use of written expectations, the supervisor’s efforts can be directed to observing, job coaching, measuring, providing feedback, training, and improving performance.  The subordinate’s role and performance expectations are clarified in writing, so that she or he can concentrate on meeting them.  

Generally if you select and place an employee in a job using a written position description, which identifies hiring criteria, and a uniform interview process, you will identify strong candidates and screen out weak ones. Employees have a better chance to start their employment in a positive manner when they understand the expectations of the position.  Interview questions should be based on the position description and assess the candidate’s match with the criteria.  For instance, one predictor of job success is experience.  Assessing a candidate’s experience using a good screening interview will help avoid hiring employees with inadequate experience and therefore those who may not perform adequately.  Once the best candidate is selected, hired, oriented, and trained, work begins.   But it may take a while before the employee hits their stride. 

Whenever underperformance surfaces, a supervisor should develop and enact a personal development plan to get an employees’ performance up to an acceptable level.  Supervisors must use all resources at their disposal to remedy or correct these situations.  If the causes of under performance can be identified and corrected early in the employment relationship, frustration for the employee and supervisor will be prevented or at least minimized.  

Should underperformance occur, a supervisor should ask the following questions to identify the underlying cause(s) … 

Does the employee know what is expected of them? Management gets what management expects and management gets what management inspects.  Performance expectations are best stated in writing so that they are objective, complete, and available for all.  They must be specific enough to eliminate guessing about what has to be done.  Written expectations include: position descriptions, training documents, work processes, policies, procedures, manuals, and work rules.  Once expectations understood by the employee (and supervisor), the supervisor must observe or “inspect” to ensure that the expectations are being met.   If the employee is not meeting expectations, the first question to ask is, does the employee know what the expectations are and are they clearly understood.  If the employee needs a restatement of the expectations or if he or she did not receive a copy of them, the super must obtain a copy and make sure that the employee understands them. If the employee knows what is expected regarding performance, but still does not perform well, then ask… 

Does the employee have enough training?   If not the supervisor must arrange for additional training for the employee.  Generally the supervisor will be able to hire experienced employees or applicants who claim to have enough experience to do the job.  However, often training must occur to bring the employee up to expected performance levels, to add or refresh skills, or to retrain to meet the needs of the business.  A training outline can be developed from the position description.  The supervisor must ensure that the employee is adequately trained.   If the employee has had enough training to meet expectations, but still does not perform well, then ask… 

Does the employee have enough time to perform well?  Generally an employee has enough time to perform well.  However, some supervisors continue to delegate or give more and more work or tougher assignments to productive and competent employees.  Over time the employee can become overwhelmed and underperformance can occur.  To correct these situations the supervisor should delegate some of the overwhelmed employee’s assignments to another employee.  If the employee has had enough time to meet performance expectations, but still does not perform well, then ask… 

Does the employee have enough talent (or capability) to perform well?  Generally an employee has enough talent or capability to do well.  Sometimes however, there is a specific requirement, perhaps a physical skill, motor skill, attribute, etc. necessary to successfully perform a job.  Let’s say fine physical dexterity is required to repair jewelry.  If the jewel smith does not have good fine motor skills, the jewelry repair jobs may not be done appropriately.  If the missing capability can be taught in a reasonable time frame, then the supervisor should arrange for additional training to improve these ”talent” skills.  Sometimes the employee simply does not have the skill or talent to perform the job and she or he must be reassigned or terminated.  If however, the employee has the talent to meet performance expectations, but still does not perform well, then ask…

Does the employee have appropriate or enough tools to perform well?  Generally an employee has been assigned adequate tools to perform well.   However, in some instances, not having adequate tools, not having well running equipment, or not having access to necessary information can negatively impact performance.  Equipment must work properly and be appropriate for the task.  The employee should also have had proper training regarding its use.   Managers and leaders must actively look for ways to solve impediments or to improve to workflow and communications.   Supervisors must make sure that employees have adequate resources to perform their jobs.  If the employee has the necessary tools, information, and resources to meet performance expectations, but still does not perform acceptably, then ask the employee…

Do you understand that your performance is not meeting expectations and what are we going to do about it?  What you should expect is that the employee acknowledges that they must perform the assignment or must improve performance and agrees to work with the supervisor to improve.   The supervisor should creatively work with the employee to develop work related skills that benefit themselves and the needs of the business. Retraining, working with others, etc. are some of the tools that the supervisor can use.  If the employee refuses to meet expectations by saying, “I wasn’t hired to do that and I won’t do it, it becomes a disciplinary issue (insubordination) and must be handled as such.  

Final Note: Sometimes personal external factors such as demanding relationships, medical and mental problems, and other distractions outside of the workplace may also negatively impact work.  These situations must be managed by the employee, so they don’t.  If employees don’t manage this separation successfully, use your coaching and discipline systems to bring these matters to their attention.  Employees should be directed to keep personal issues separate from the workplace.  Employees with such problems should be directed to community resources to help with their resolution.  Supervisors can be empathetic to an employee’s personal problems, but should not get personally involved with solving them.  Refer these problems to professionals or the clergy who are trained to handle them.

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