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Improving Underperformers

How to maximize the potential of your staff

September 2, 2014  By Alex Gallacher

What is the best way to improve employees who are not performing to their potential?

What is the best way to improve employees who are not performing to their potential? You first need to know what is going on with the particular employee. Is there anything else going on in their job, the work environment, with co-workers, with a supervisor, or, more broadly, in their life that is precluding them from performing?

Let’s face it, most people don’t wake up in the morning and think to themselves: “How do I steal from my employer by doing a lousy job?” The reason for this is that people normally associate feelings of safety with remaining employed. This is normally not assured with blatant or continuing underperformance on their part.


If you can alleviate or improve upon whatever is hampering your apparent underperformer’s work, the problem is often resolved quickly. Having worked with hundreds of small to mid-sized employers since 2004, we know this can involve many factors.

This is not about excuses. It is about understanding what is really going on in order to truly help enable employee performance. This is also not about prying too deeply into an employee’s personal life. Instead, it is about asking, respectfully and supportively, how you can help remove potential barriers to their individual performance.

The difference between success and failure here is often driven by your approach. Help is usually accepted; blame is usually deflected. As a bonus, helpful employers usually end up earning the trust and respect of their employees, the Number 1 driver of their, and increasingly your, performance.

If, after understanding what is really going on with a particular employee, you still believe it is a performance problem, ask them how you might be able to help them perform better in their job? Nicely, calmly, usually privately, while taking notes, ask them: “How could we as an organization, or me as a leader here, enable you to perform better in your role?”

Listen carefully to their responses, and let them come back to you if they want to think about it for a day or two. Maybe they need some training, coaching, mentoring, support, tools, safety gear, ventilation, or potentially something else.

Finally, if and when you and/or your qualified human resources consultant has completed the diagnostic work required to determine that there is an actual individual performance problem, then, and only then, should you consider additional action.

For a typical small to mid-sized employer, this will involve a progressive discipline process as laid out in your HR policies and procedures documentation, tied back to their employment agreement. This normally starts with a verbal warning, working through one or more written warnings, moving up to a formal performance improvement plan, and failing improvement, potential termination, normally “without cause” in a legal sense. Pay in lieu of notice, statutory severance, career transition and common-law considerations should all be contemplated. In reality, these parting goodies, as they are often viewed, are to provide a bridge for the employee as they work to find their next employer. You are also covering off some of their basic physiological and safety needs in the process. Don’t begrudge them: it’s wasted energy. We recommend you pay up and move on.


Alex Gallacher CHRP, SHRP is managing director of ENGAGE HR™. He can be reached at Do you have workplace questions? The Human Resources Professionals Association’s (HRPA) EZ HR small business HR service connects you with Human Resources information to get the most from your team, as well as Employment Practices Liability insurance to protect your business from employment- or discrimination-related allegations against you or your firm. For details, go to

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