It May Be Worth Taking a Second Look at Underperforming Staff

Addressing the issue of underperforming staff can be time consuming and stressful for both the individual and his manager. A structured approach to discussions and performance goals can help reach a solution.


Olga Voroshilov,
partner, Cornerstone

Each head sooner or later is confronted with a situation where he realizes that he has some unsuccessful employees. Unfortunately, an interview can never predict future results with a 100 per cent success rate. There are ways, however, to give underperforming staff an opportunity to prove their effectiveness, their loyalty to the company and their commitment to development.

According to statistics, an employer rarely decides to give an unsuccessful employee a second chance to prove themselves, or to find out what are the particular strengths of that person or how they can be used to the benefit of the company. Indeed, it is sometimes easier to say goodbye and start looking for a new person. Yet if the employer sees that a loyal employee is willing to change it is worth a try.

From Cornerstone's past experience it is possible to promote change in a whole department or function — for example even recruitment consultants can try themselves in business development or vice versa. It is possible to help employees use their skills and distribute the company's forces efficiently.

If you are confronted with an underperforming employee, there are several steps that can increase the chance of a successful outcome.

Step one. Be sure to invite the head of personnel to take part in a frank conversation. Motivational interviewing should be properly designed and structured. In my opinion, it is necessary to discuss the following questions:

  What objectives were set? Were they achieved?

  What are the obstacles to success? How does the employee assess his own work and the reasons for failure?

  Having listened carefully to the employee, the manager must submit his vision, and explain what, in his view, was the obstacle to success and what are the main issues.

The result of this conversation should be a clear vision of a common future. Quite often in my experience after a conversation with the employee has identified problem areas, they soon move towards finding a solution and stabilizing the situation.

Step two requires the management to assess the competence of the unsuccessful employee. A detailed analysis of the situation will most likely reveal a number of nuances that indicate the causes of failure and the role of the employee.

Step three is often necessary: digging deeply to analyze if the employee lacks sufficient theoretical knowledge and practical skills to successfully perform his duties. It may happen that the easiest way out of this situation will be additional training or short courses that allow him to quickly acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to train up.

Step four. It sometimes happens that the employee has difficulty coping with his responsibilities as the role has changed. For example the candidate may be convinced that he can sell, and presents himself well, but it turns out that working with people is not his strong point. The person's psychology does not always correspond to the selected position, but, unfortunately, candidates may not know this because we are not always able to assess ourselves adequately. Some time ago in our company we conducted a study that determined that the most successful recruiters used psychological tests. In the light of this, when filling a job in your team, I suggest applicants take a test to establish their suitability as part of the selection process.

Step five is providing systematic formal training sessions as part of mentoring. This helps to determine what the employee needs to become more successful. At Cornerstone, we tested every single employee to determine their strengths and weaknesses, and areas on which they need to work. This way we might determine that one employee should spend more time meeting clients, while another hones his interviewing technique.

If your subordinate is not working successfully, it is definitely worth taking the time to understand the reasons for these failures, and to work together to find a way to fix the problem. However, if the process reveals a complete lack of competencies that are essential to perform the assigned tasks and we understand that the employee needs a lot of time to meet the company's standards, then probably it does not make sense to torment that employee with continued failure. When a person feels unsuccessful his self-esteem falls. He performs worse as a person and in the company. In this case, you can offer him another position that suits his skills or advise him to find a new job where he can fully realize himself. In any case we must remember that each person, by definition, has his or her skills. You only need to know where to dig.