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How To Deal With Problem Staff And Poor Performance

Apr 26, 2008
Poor staff performance and 'problem workers' are some of the trickiest things to be dealt with in the office. It's difficult to balance morale and productivity in the optimum way for office success, and as a result I often hear of managers turning a blind eye to poor staff performance, fearing that drawing attention to it will cause problems in the atmosphere and work environment.

The truth is that avoiding dealing with problem staff is often the worst thing you can do. If you turn a blind eye, the rot can spread to the other apples. If a member of staff is consistently late, for example, and nothing is seen to be done about it, then why should other staff members keep up high standards of timeliness? Inevitably, a rot sets in around the office and poor staff performance becomes the rule rather than the exception! Even if it is something that others are unaware of, like plummeting productivity, it is still something that should be dealt with as soon as you become aware of the issue - intervening in a timely manner will hit the problem on the head early on, and prevent it from spreading and causing resentment and ill feeling. After all, problem employees may not realise they are doing anything wrong unless you intervene, and doing this early can act as a wake-up call to improve staff performance before it's too late!

So the first step of dealing with problem staff or poor performance is to inform them of the problem. Naturally this should be done in private to avoid shaming them in front of the others (this will cause major resentment), and the issue should be explained clearly so there is no grounds for misunderstanding. If they have a reasonable excuse for a drop in form (severe illness in the family or problems at home) then you should endeavour to be understanding and come up with a compassionate solution - see how you can help the employee return to standard. If they have no reason, you need to reiterate (or in some cases, iterate) clearly what your expectations are from them - after all, if they don't know what they are it can be impossible for them to be met! If you have a problem employee, you don't want to wait until their annual review to tell them what goals they should have met!

The next phase is actually helping them to meet your outlined expectations. In the case of something like consistent lateness this is easy to monitor, but with something more abstract - like quantity and quality of work, it's harder for both you and the employee to keep an eye on things. For this reason, you may need to consider the following things when managing poor performance in your staff:

Plenty of Feedback

Positive, constructive feedback is a good idea to give your employee an idea of whether they're heading in the right direction or not. Let them know clearly what's improved and what still needs to be tightened - it should be specific, detailed and timely.

Possible Supervision

Problem employees often require direction and for employers to work closely with them in order for them to reach their potential. Both parties should understand that this hands on approach to managing poor performance is with the ultimate goal of the employee working competently independently of constant supervision.

Additional Training

In some (but by no means all) situations, the employees underperformance may be through no fault of their own, and they may as a result require extra training in order to reach the standard of skills and competency stipulated in their goals.


Depending on the type of problem employee you have, you may find checklists to be of use. These are particularly useful for problem staff who struggle with their timekeeping and priorities, it allows them to stay focused on each task and organise their workload.

Positive Reinforcement

Having already been highlighted for doing something wrong, it is essential you redress the balance when the employee's performance improves. Positive reinforcement - telling the employee you're pleased with their work can make someone's day, improve their happiness at a company and - most importantly - make them more likely to deliver a repeat performance. Let them know that this is the sort of thing you've been hoping for.

Set a Period of Evaluation

One of the most important areas of dealing with problem staff is setting a period of evaluation. Put in writing the problem, the improvements you hope to see made, and the timeline for this. Close with the disciplinary actions that will be taken if things are not improved (and maintained) - all the way up to dismissal if there is no improvement.

Whatever you do, don't just make firing your employees your automatic response to poor staff performance! You need to work with the employees to try and resolve issues, and give them fair warning that their job is in danger, otherwise you are leaving yourself wide open for litigation. It may seem a lot of work, and easier just to let it slide initially, but failure to act early will cause the problem to get worse and worse, and potentially for discontent to spread within the office environment. Follow this procedure when managing poor performance, and there's no reason why your productivity shouldn't recover from the slight dip!
About the Author
Iain Mackintosh is the managing director of Simply-Docs. The firm provides over 1100 legal documents and small business templates covering all aspects of business from holiday entitlement to managing poor performance. By providing these legal documents (with content provided by leading commercial lawyers, HR and health & safety consultants) at an affordable price, the company intends to help small businesses
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