HR Q&A: Motivating an under-performing employee

by Alex Gallacher

Question: How do I get an underperforming employee to improve?

Answer: 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, 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 under performance on their part.

If you can alleviate or improve upon whatever is impeding your apparent under-performer’s performance, the problem is often resolved quickly. Having worked with hundreds of small to mid-sized employers since 2004, I’ve found this can be anything from:

  • a lack of knowing what exactly is expected at a level they really understand, and can therefore act upon;
  • a poor manager who demotivates;
  • personal problems that are distracting their focus from timely, accurate work.

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, a helpful employer usually ends up earning the trust and respect of their employees, a factor which is the number one 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, and in a spirit of discovery, 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. Enable them if it seems reasonable. Normally, by working with someone to get their performance level up, the sheer fact that you’re doing so provides an improvement.  This is because you are positively impacting their esteem, plus the additional gains you are likely to discover.

Finally, if and when you and/or your qualified human resources consultant has worked through the diagnostic work 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 considered.  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.

Answer provided by Alex Gallacher CHRP, SHRP. Gallacher is managing director of Engage HR.

This ongoing series of advice columns written by members of the The Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA). If you have a general HR question you’d like answered, e-mail it We’ll pass the questions along to HRPA for consideration as the subject of a future article.

For more specific quetions, HRPA’s EZ HR small business service connects companies with human resources information experts and provides employment practices liability insurance designed to protect businesses from employment- or discrimination-related allegations.

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