Ask Sophaya: How Do I Manage My Slacking Staff?

Dear Sophaya,

I have a team of mixed office and remote employees, and I’m really lucky that the majority of them overdeliver, have great attitudes, and are just a pleasure to work with. However, I have one particular remote employee who is constantly underperforming. I’ve talked to him about this before and asked if I could do anything to adjust his job duties so that he’s better able to fulfill the expectations of his role. He said he didn’t need any adjustments, but yet still has a poor attitude and his work isn’t getting completed on time or to my expectations. How do I proceed?

Sincerely, Out of Ideas

Dear Out of Ideas, 

I’m sorry to hear you’re in this situation, but rest assured, it’s not uncommon. At some point, and often more than once, managers will encounter underperforming workers. It sounds like you’ve taken some steps to rectify the situation–e.g. reaching to your employee to inform him of the situation and asking how you can support him–which shows that you’re open to being flexible with this employee and helping get him back on track. I think that’s great. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to help bring this remote employee back up to speed overnight, there is a general protocol that can help you help each other.

Before we get into that, however, it’s important to remember that your employees are humans. More often than we realize, employees are struggling with seemingly invisible disabilities such as mental health disorders or chronic illness, issues at home, or other difficulties that will affect their job performance. Sometimes, too, it’s important to recognize that not everyone’s brain works the same way as yours–so what seems like common sense to you may not be common sense to others. With that in mind, consider that you may need to reframe your offer for job adjustments or your feedback on your underperforming remote employee’s performance to ensure you’re offering advice in a way that is helpful to him, and that does not criticize elements of his life that are outside his control. Be sure to focus on concrete, actionable feedback that the employee can act on to improve his performance. 

Now it’s time to take that understanding and incorporate it into the performance improvement process. Your first step? Consult your company’s policy, and your human resources team, on managing underperforming remote workers. It’s very likely that your organization has laid some groundwork for ways that underperforming workers should be engaged, whether they’re remote or in-house. From there, it will be time to take action. Be sure to bear the following tips in mind when managing your underperforming remote employee:

Be Explicit About the Problem Before Performance Evaluations

If you have regular one-on-one conference or video calls with your employee (which I’d highly recommend instituting with all employees you manage, both in-house and remote), that’s a great time to explain the situation in concrete terms. Tell your employee that you’ve noticed him struggling, and provide some concrete, documented examples of projects on which he underdelivered. (Pro tip: You’ll want to be documenting his progress as much as possible during this time, so it’s best if you begin logging examples of his performance, both positive and negative.) 

This meeting will provide a good opportunity to nip issues in the bud prior to your employee’s next performance review. No one should ever be blindsided by a negative review if their employer has had ample opportunity to discuss shortcomings during one-on-ones. 

If you can hold this meeting over video chat, I’d highly recommend doing so. This can be a difficult conversation to have, and taking the time to meet with your employee face to face will show that you’re invested in him and his success.

Discuss Next Steps as Outlined By Your Company’s Policy

During your meeting, take time to ensure your employee understands the next steps in the process. Let your company’s policies be your guide, and explain them to your employee in no-nonsense terms.  Your employee may have questions such as, “What chances will I have to improve my performance, and how long will I have to show improvement?” Take time to answer them in detail.

Now would be a good time to answer some other questions as well. For example: Does your company have anything along the lines of a “performance improvement plan” (PIP)? If so, will that kick in immediately? Or will your employee have time to course-correct before that happens? What will success look like? Be certain that you are clear and concrete here, too–and remember that if your employee leaves this meeting confused, there’s more work to be done before you’re both in agreement.

Take Copious Notes

Take notes during the call to document the conversation and agreed-upon next steps, and encourage your employee to take his own notes and ask questions along the way. You’ll want to be sure you have a thorough, detailed, accurate log of how things go after your initial meeting so you know how to proceed after the prescribed time period. 

Be Mindful of Your Language

Remember what I mentioned earlier about everyone’s brain working differently? One critical element of that is recognizing that what might seem like a clear offer of support to you might not be so clear to your employee. It sounds like you’ve unsuccessfully offered to adjust his work plan before; perhaps a new approach could be helpful to offer during your conversations. Try using concrete, clear options and language such as, “I see you’re struggling with X and Y. I am going to delegate one of these elsewhere so you can focus on really nailing the other. Do you have a preference for what I can take off your plate?” That way, you’re presenting a clear choice, showing the employee how you’re really trying to adjust his work plan for his benefit, and allowing him some agency to choose projects he cares about. 

Managing underperforming employees is never fun. THe most important thing to remember as you do is to respect your employee throughout the process. Be sure not to condescend, patronize, or attack your employee; rather, respect his struggles and learn to speak his language. In so doing, you may find that your employee develops to become one of the strongest members of your team. If not, you’ll still have an ally in the workforce who appreciates the time you invested to help him succeed.

Best of luck, Sophaya