How To Find, Fix Or Fire Your Poor Performers

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3. Confront the employee. There may be a good reason for the individual’s poor performance. Then again, there might not be. But it’s your responsibility to find out what’s going on. Begin by discussing the person’s work with his supervisor, peers and the users he supports so that you get specific examples of shortcomings. Once you have that information, sit down face-to-face for an honest and direct discussion about your expectations, where the failings are, and what impact that performance is having on the IT organization or the company at large. Also ask him why he thinks he’s falling short. Davis believes managers owe employees the opportunity to explain themselves. If there’s an obstacle impeding their success or performance, this is the way a CIO will find out, he says.

4. Shift the onus for improvement to the employee. If the employee shows interest in doing better work, ask her to come up with an action plan. Offer your help if she needs it. You might suggest books to read, courses to take or people to talk to. But ultimately, her performance and her improvement are up to her. "I think a company has a responsibility to make sure you’re in the right spot, that you’re trained correctly, that you have the right tools to do your job. After that, your job and your performance are what you make of it," Smith says.

If the employee denies that there’s a problem, is offended by your evidence of poor performance or says something like "That’s not what I was hired for," then tell her to take the rest of the day off to figure out what’s best for her. "This is effectively a one-day suspension from work," says Grote, the performance appraisal guru. This dramatic gesture brings home to the employee that her poor performance is serious business, Grote says, and gives her a decision to make: Return to the office the next day ready to change behavior, or look for a new opportunity elsewhere.

If the employee comes back promising to improve but doesn’t live up to her word, "then you’re about as bulletproof as can be" when you pull the trigger, says Grote. If, however, the worker seems sincere about doing better, then you have something to work with.

Sheleen Quish, global CIO and vice president of corporate marketing for U.S. Can, says that when it comes to determining whether an underperformer merits some sort of training or second chance, she bases her decision on the attitude and effort displayed. "No one’s going to flip a switch and become somebody different the next day. It’s a process. But if they exhibit the right attitude and energy and they’re willing to start the process, I’ll support them for a long time," she adds.

5. Follow up frequently. "When you’re trying to get someone to perform at a higher level, you have to measure and monitor them a lot more often," says Quish. "There’s a lot of following up and a lot of breaking projects down into bite-sized pieces." She advises that an employee on an improvement plan should be given weekly tasks and goals, to be tracked by the person’s direct manager. Whether the employee is able to keep up with the weekly plan will quickly give you a sense of whether he can improve, Quish says. "If they’re not making it in weekly buckets, how are you ever going to give them a major project?" she asks.

It’s important to document all performance-related conversations you have with employees. When you hold them, note what you discuss and what the two of you agree on. That way, if you have to fire an employee, you have important evidence on your side in the event that he contests the termination.

Just Win-Win, Baby

Dealing with a poor performer usually means that you have to bring the situation to a head, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Given the chance, most people want to do right by their employers, even as they’re looking out for their own interests. While at energy provider Aquila, Paper promoted a systems analyst to a senior analyst position. The new role turned out to be too much for the woman, who worked countless hours to keep up yet still turned in subpar work. Paper told the employee she wanted to drop her back to the systems analyst position so that she could again excel. Her salary would remain at her current level, and no one would know she was demoted.

The woman’s pride was hurt at first, but when she realized that this move would be good for her, she was relieved and embraced the opportunity. She’s still working for Aquila and thriving as a systems analyst. "If they’ve got the right values but the skill isn’t there," says Paper, "then put them in a place where they can bring value to the organization."

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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