As a small business owner, poor employee performance can have a devastating effect on your business.

This is especially hard for small businesses because leadership is often wearing multiple hats and there is not a lot of time for training and assessing the true root causes of poor performance. This results is higher than average employee churn and stress.

As you read this blog, I want you to think of that one employee who is just not performing. My hope is to give you some ways in which to improve their performance and lessen your stress.

So How Do You Handle Poor Employee Performance?

I’ve seen two predominant approaches.

The “Do Nothing” Approach

At one end of the spectrum, management just puts up with the poor performance, they just ignore it.

The pain of letting an employee go exceeds the pain of keeping the employee.

Everyone in the organization knows this is dysfunctional, but no action is taken. I’ve seen this happen where there are actually two standards, one for sales and one for everyone else. As long as someone is selling, leadership will tolerate almost anything.

This devastates morale and demotivates high performers.

When this happens, employees build a mistrust for leadership. Core Value violators are not taken to task, so the core values are meaningless – just words. The result is a mediocre organization. High performers leave for better opportunities. Depending on the industry, employee churn can be high. “High performers” with poor adherence to core values are kelp because of misplaced priorities.

The “Churn And Burn” Approach

At the other end of the spectrum is a churn and burn approach. It’s “sink or swim”.

If an employee doesn’t make it or “fit in” within the first month of two, they’re gone.

Either the employee leaves because they are getting a negative signal or they are let go.

This approach fosters a culture of fear, since no one really knows what’s expected of them.

There are unwritten rules of performance, based on the whim of leadership. It’s the ultimate confirmation bias. You hear things like, “Bob just didn’t get it”. No specifics. They just didn’t fit in. People are afraid to speak up for fear of being let go or not fitting in.

You often see management getting together off-site to commiserate and complain. No one has any one else’s back. The ultimate “low trust” organization.

Which two extremes does your company fit into?

There has to be a better way and the good news it that there is, but I’ll warn you. It takes time and focus.

Managing people is hard. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

So, when confronted with an employee who is not performing, what do you do? There is a nice framework from the book “People Leave Managers Not Organizations“. I recommend picking up the book. It’s a great read on the subject. We’ve also written a detailed post on how to make the most of the employee performance review.

Make Sure Your Core Values Are Clear (And You Actually Believe Them)

Everything I am going to write after this point won’t make a bit of difference if you don’t get your core values operating system right. When I say “core values operating system” I mean the system which ensures your core values become the operating principles of your business. That system consists of the following:

  • Core values definitions – something which clearly explains what you core values mean. I other words, just saying “integrity” is a core value is not enough.
  • Core values communication – ensuring everyone knows what the core values are and you have regular events to reiterate your core values
  • Core values belief – ensuring leadership (that’s you) actually believes the core values – they are indeed CORE values
  • Core values accountability – ensuring everyone is held accountable to exhibit the core values.

Again, if you don’t get this right, poor employee performance will remain a problem and it will be very difficult to correct.

Determine If The Performance Expectations Are Clear

In this first step you must determine if the performance expectations clear. How do you do that? Ask the following questions:

  • Have you clarified the desired outcomes? What results do you want the employee to provide?
  • Have you defined how success (the results) are going to measured?
  • Did you link the expectations to the “why” of your business? In other words, have you communicated why their work is important to the mission of the business?
  • Have you clarified what the consequences will be if the expectations are not met?

This is all a great deal of work to do, but critical if you want to properly manage a poor performer. Often, the root cause of poor performance is our lack of making the performance expectations clear.

Determine If The Employee Has The Ability To Do The Job

Once you’ve clarified the performance exceptions, the next step in determining the root cause of poor performance is determining if the employee actually has the ability to do the job.

If you find that they don’t have the ability, there are a few things you can do.

Train and reinforce their progress

Seems pretty obvious, but have you trained them? Often we just expect people to know what to do. The employee may be too embarrassed to ask.

Don’t just assume that they can’t learn. Give them specific instructions on how you’d like the job done. Watch them carefully to see that they understand the instructions and that they can execute on what you’ve asked them to do.

Move or Replace

Lastly, if you’ve done all this, there may be a chance that they cannot perform that job. They may not capable of performing.

If you hired me to be a greeter at a store for 8 hours a day, I will tell you, I just cannot do that job. I’m an introvert and that job would drain me. I might be able to perform for a day or two, but I don’t have the social chops long-term.

This problem can be avoided by properly screen applicants during the hiring process, but

Determine If The Employee Has The Confidence To Do The Job

If you’ve (1) clarified your expectations (2) ensured the employee has the ability, the next step is to determine if they have the confidence.

The only thing I can relate this to is performing a musical instrument.

Often, people need opportunities to play so that they build up enough confidence to perform under pressure. They have the ability to play, but not the confidence. The same is true for job performance.

According to Tate & White’s book, “Confidence and self-esteem are created through achievement, not “feel good” feedback!”

If you notice that the employee is not confident, you can offer encouragement and praise them when they’ve been successful. Make sure you’re available for your support when they get stuck.

Be careful to help move the employee from dependence on you as a manager to independence to do their job.

Determine If The Employee Is Committed

So, far we have clear expectations, ability and confidence and things to check when an employee is exhibiting poor performance. If you can check yes on all these boxes, the next step is to determine their commitment.

The is the point where you seek to inspire the employee according to Tate & White.

To inspire the employee remind them of the company’s “why” or purpose. Help them to see how their day to day performance affects all the company stakeholders (other employees, customers, vendors etc.).

Look out for things that may be preventing them from doing their best. What barriers are blocking them? Take time to experience their job the way they do. There may be way’s your company is operating that actually reduces their commitment. Policies and procedures that need to be changed.

Determine If The Employee Has The Desire

Finally, if you’ve checked all the previous boxes, the employee motivation may be a problem. They may just not want to do the job.

What does this have to do with you? Well, there are things that you could be doing which are deflators.

“Managerial pronouncements that lack explanations and relevant facts disenfranchise the mind and kill the human spirit”

The point here is to be open to new ways of doing things as long as the key results for the job is accomplished.

Poor employee performance can cost your organization thousands. I hope this post has helped you to dig a bit deeper.

To help you determine the root cause of poor employee performance we’ve put together this free poor employee performance checklist.