3 Tips for What to Do When Employees Are Underperforming

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8 Minute Read
Posted by Lori Culler
Employees Are Underperforming

Underperformance hurts everybody in the workplace. Read on to learn what you can do to address it!

One of everyone’s least favorite responsibilities as a manager is navigating how to address an employee who is underperforming. There’s no question that telling someone they’re not performing up to par is not fun and can be uncomfortable for all parties involved.

Ignore the little voice in your head telling you to put it off! When you avoid addressing the situation or do it haphazardly without regard for how, you hurt your organization and breed frustrations among you and your staff. The “how” is just as important as the “what” when you give feedback and can majorly affect your company culture and employee morale.

In this guide we’ll discuss tips for how to address an employee who is underperforming so that your agribusiness is back on the track to operating at its full potential!

1. Facilitate Open Communication

Sometimes a problem could have been avoided if your employee felt comfortable coming to you for help in the beginning, before things snowball beyond their control. If you want your employees to communicate with you freely, look first to yourself. Do you model transparent top-down communication in your workplace? Do you thoughtfully avoid emotional reactions when things don’t go perfectly?

Instead of wondering “Is this necessary to share?” ask “Is this necessary to withhold?” Involve your employees at all levels of decision making and problem solving (when practical) to increase engagement and sense of responsibility to your organization’s common goals. Get your employees excited about and involved in your mission! This group of people is more likely to operate as a team.

Employees who are engaged and see their involvement in the big picture will be more likely to communicate hiccups and concerns as they happen, instead of burying them out of fear. They’ll also be more likely to have a drive for improvement.

Don’t limit the conversations to work! Openly talk about your home life and hobbies to encourage your employees to do the same and foster a feeling of trust and camaraderie. Employees that feel supported as a whole person and not just a worker will communicate issues more readily and be more receptive to your feedback. A sense of camaraderie will also create a culture where people help each other when they see that they’re struggling, whether it’s to take on a few extra responsibilities now and then or teach someone how to do something that they do well.

Clearly define expectations for your employees, and never assume that someone knows something without telling them. Sometimes underperformance is related to a simple miscommunication or misunderstanding about job responsibilities. Make sure your employees receive thorough onboarding and training from the get-go, and have a conversation to clarify job responsibilities once you notice someone underperforming. It’s possible that a little further training and guidance is all your employee needs to do their job well!

Remember: Communication and feedback go both ways. While you can do everything you can to create an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable spontaneously coming to you with problems, sometimes they need a little coaxing. Some employees might hide behind their pride or not feel like you care to hear what they have to say. If you want to know something, ask! Create a culture of camaraderie where people operate as a team towards common goals and believe in the good of the organization, not just clocking in and out.

2. Practice Empathy

No one comes to work and decides they’re going to do a bad job. Everyone is doing the best they can with the resources they have at that moment. If someone isn’t performing up to par, there’s a reason why, even if it’s something simple like the fact they’re just not a good fit for the job.

Even the most dedicated all-star employee has their limits after which their work performance suffers, whether it’s due to personal reasons outside of work or they’re experiencing burnout. Try your best to put yourself in their shoes and consider their perspective, and be the kind of manager people feel like they can approach with their difficulties. The goal is to help them, not reprimand them.

Some employees will be too prideful to admit when they’re struggling with maintaining the quality of their work output. Approach the situation gently, ready to listen. You never know what is going on in someone else’s life. As their manager, sometimes your hands will be tied and you can only do so much. But if their decline in performance is related to something in the workplace beyond job fit, what can you do to correct it?

Know that job satisfaction is highly related to job performance. Do they feel stagnant? Do you offer opportunities for advancement and growth? What about your company culture’s take on work-life balance? If it’s a lack of engagement that is causing the decline in performance, it could indicate the need for a structural change within your organization.

Have frequent check-ins regarding your employees’ wellbeings. Get to know them outside of their work output. What are their short-term and long-term goals? What do they need out of their job? From you as a manager? You are more than just individuals who work at the same place - you are a team and should work together in a symbiotic professional relationship.

Remember: Each of your employees is a whole person, with dynamic, complex needs and emotions. Approaching each situation with empathy and compassion will get you much further than reacting out of your own emotions in the moment. You might find that the fix for your employee’s underperformance is simple! Sometimes it comes down to just a bad job fit, in which case both your business and your employee would be better off parting ways, but sometimes the problem is something that you have the power to fix.

3. stablish Feedback Protocol

A major purpose of a protocol is to promote consistency within your organization in both procedure and results.

Have a clear procedure outlined regarding how and how often you will deliver feedback to your employees. A regular, consistent feedback schedule is important! Communicate this procedure so that they know exactly what to expect and don’t have to second guess their work quality. Convey this procedure during onboarding and actually follow through with it.

Don’t assume that someone knows they’re doing a good job either! When you don’t tell people that they’re doing well, they might assume they’re doing just OK or feel unrecognized for their hard work. Employees that don’t feel recognized have decreased work satisfaction and incentive to keep doing well, and might even start underperforming.

You need a system in place for delivering feedback. Your protocol for delivering feedback and behavioral corrections needs to be consistent and fair. Objective feedback for all employees promotes a culture of responsibility and accountability. When you dance around negative feedback, your top performers will feel slighted and feel less motivation to keep up their work. People might doubt your integrity as a manager and not feel like you’ll have their back when they need it.

The recipe for effective feedback is swift, objective, balanced, and private. Make sure your feedback is timely - don’t wait too long to give it, as this will just be confusing and allow the employee to keep operating as-is. Don’t reprimand people in front of others, especially when you are overcome by frustration and emotion. Objectivity is very important here. Everyone needs to be treated with the same respect; don’t consistently criticize one person’s performance while you let another’s fly without consequence.

While it may seem easier to shirk the responsibility off to someone else to avoid an uncomfortable conversation, this not only sets a bad example but creates tension and prolongs the situation. Ignore that voice in your head that’s hoping the situation will just fix itself before you need to address it! You will only grow more frustrated at the lack of change, which will affect the atmosphere and make people less comfortable with coming to you when they need to.

Document everything so that there is a paper trail that you can refer back to and reference for changes in work performance. Have a system for following up on changes to performance, and communicate these changes. Have a plan for re-addressing underperformance or rewarding improvement.

Maintain confidentiality on a need-to-know basis. The last thing you want is to create a culture where people fear making mistakes because you embarrass them in front of others.

In your employee’s performance appraisal, tie in their work to the big picture to help give them a sense of purpose! This could be anything from the organization’s mission, real-life effects of their work, or their personal goals. Feeling a sense of accomplishment helps increase engagement and productivity. Sometimes this is all that someone needs to help kick things back into gear!

If after approaching your employee with your concerns and making a plan for change, they aren’t able or aren’t willing to improve their performance, consider the fact that this arrangement might not be best for either of you. That is OK! Have a protocol in place for next steps, whether it is changing their role at your company or terminating your relationship. Make sure this is after they have been given a fair shot to change their performance and are aware of the consequences, as this is a last resort. Again, documentation is important.

Remember: Establish a transparent plan for delivering feedback and acting on changes to performance, and follow it! Nothing is more frustrating than feeling that management isn’t being objective or consistent. Your actions need to match your words, or else you run the risk of losing your high performers in the wake of your underperformers skating by because you didn’t follow your feedback protocol. Know that positive feedback is just as important as negative feedback and can actually help motivate your underperforming employee.

Concluding Thoughts

Understand that underperformance is a symptom of something deeper, whether it is on the employee’s end or your end. You can’t just numb the symptoms by removing that employee and expect the problem to be immediately resolved. We’re all trying our best with what we have! Whether the underperformance is related to poor job fit, workplace burnout, or a simple miscommunication, it’s important to get to the root cause of the problem so you can stop it from damaging your business in the future.

At the end of the day, negative feedback is an opportunity to grow and learn so that both your employee and your agribusiness improve and succeed. Don’t shy away from it! Step up as a leader and guide your agribusiness as a true team!

AgHires is your leading agribusiness executive search partner. When you want to be connected to top talent in agriculture, trust AgHires’ to use the most up-to-date resources in the agriculture industry and get it done!

Help your employees become more productive with these actionable tips.
Lori Culler

Lori Culler

Lori Culler (Lennard), founder and owner of AgHires, grew up in and around the Agricultural Industry on her family's 3rd generation potato, tomato, and grain operation in Southeast Michigan and Northern Indiana.