Training & Development

Employee Performance: Managing the Bottom 10 Percent

Rebecca GibsonLast time we examined the best of employee performance — how to polish the shine on your high- performers and how to motivate your mid-performers to step up their efforts. This month, we turn our attention to the exasperating question of how to deal with our bottom 10% — those employees who don’t have the skills or temperament to be successful in their current position, whose lack of commitment to the values and goals of the company is apparent, or who are willing to work below the acceptable standards of performance, damaging the morale of their fellow employees and threatening our competitive position with our customers.

Sound dramatic? There should be no doubt that these employees drain company productivity and resources. Poor performers can end up taking so much of our time, they leave little for us to deal with our top and mid-performers, who, with attention and coaching, can increase their contributions many times over (and are more likely to do so).

Six Tips for Managing Performance Problems

Setting performance standards that support our company and contact center objectives, and dealing with the people who don’t meet or exceed them, is necessary to continuously improve organizational performance. The issue is how to do this effectively. What are the best methods for properly and fairly managing poor performers, improving the performance of those who can be boosted into the midperformer category and cutting loose those who are unable or unwilling to do so?

Assuming a proficiency in standard coaching techniques, the following guidelines are intended to help you do just that

1. Don’t wait until there’s a problem
In far too many organizations, we explain to employees what we want them to do or not do after we observe a performance problem. Your expectations about what work should be done and how work should be done should be crystal clear. This means taking the time to extensively document the skills, knowledge and abilities you expect to be in evidence while the employee works and then educating employees about these expectations — what they mean and how to demonstrate them. Consider some of the generational-related misunderstandings about what it means to be professional: Are tank tops and skinny jeans allowed at work? What about cell phone use during work hours? Is text-style writing in emails acceptable (e.g., “I’ll b there b4 2”)?

2. Don’t be afraid
Fear of tough conversations is one of the biggest barriers to improving performance. Managers must be willing to address performance problems with employees quickly, clearly and candidly. If an employee is surprised by a warning, a poor performance review or termination, this is a failure on the part of the manager to address the issue when it was germinating. If you a notice an employee who is late twice in a week, but still within the permitted late occurrences, don’t hesitate to say, “I know you’ve had a lot going on this week and you’re within the allowed occurrences, but I want you to keep your eye on that. I’d hate to see your good record tarnished, and I know you would, too. Is there anything that I can help you with to resolve the issues you’re having?”

3. Base feedback on observable, job-related behaviors
We should be able to explain what we want employees to do behaviorally — what we want them to say or do — within the context of their jobs. Rather than, “Your attitude is poor” or “You don’t seem to care,” try, “I’ve heard you snap at your coworkers when they ask for your help (be ready with a specific example) and I’d like to hear you sound more helpful. Do you know what that might sound like? For example, instead of saying, ‘I’m busy, come back later,’ you could have said, ‘I don’t have time right now, Mary, but could we talk about this later this afternoon? I’d be happy to help you with that.’ Do you hear the difference?”

As much as possible, stress the objective, job-related aspect of what you’re asking the employee to do. In the previous example, for instance, the manager might add, “Our jobs require that we support our newest team members so they can become productive on their own. If Mary feels that you aren’t willing to help her, this puts her in a tight spot. She could give out the wrong information or process a transaction incorrectly. Do you see how that could be a problem?”

4. Check for understanding and agreement
Did you notice the question at the end of the last example? Asking questions to gauge an employee’s understanding of what you’re asking them to do and for their agreement to do it is an important part of any low-performer discussion. Since these discussions can quickly disintegrate into “…because I told you to,” prompting the employee to summarize his understanding of the situation (“We’ve talked about this a number of times and I haven’t seen improvement. What’s going on?”) and identify the actions that should be taken to move forward (“This is something you’re willing to put some effort into?”) will increase understanding and agreement between you and the employee.

5. Be open to turning it around
Some managers write off poor performers too quickly, which can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s important that you’re open to recognizing and celebrating improvement, even when it doesn’t come as fast as you’d like or when you’re still annoyed by things that happened in the past. Model the ability to move on and start fresh for your employees — your positive willingness to move forward will help them do the same.

6. Keep a paper trail of your discussions
While you’re planning for improved performance, you’re also staying within legal guidelines and preparing for all possible outcomes. After each discussion with the poor performer, take notes that summarize the discussions, even if no formal documentation was generated. Describe the problem, the action taken to correct or eliminate it, dates, agreements, results and any comments that will help you to recall discussion. Depending on the situation, you may also ask the employee to summarize his understanding of the situation and his agreement in an email to you. These notes are invaluable to fuel subsequent discussions about the issue, annual appraisals and any other outcome, including termination.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to discuss and document examples of improved, acceptable or outstanding performance, too.

When You’re Close to the End

It’s inevitable with some employees. They either aren’t capable of improving or they don’t want to. You’ve just about exhausted your arsenal of coaching and feedback, goal-setting, negotiating and formal warnings. You’re close to the end. What’s the best way to manage the outcome?

Partner with HR to come to a shared agreement about managing your workforce

It’s frustrating when its feels like HR is blocking the road to parting with a non-productive employee. HR is tasked with protecting the company and you from unnecessary future legal entanglements and most HR managers take this responsibility seriously. Your best approach is to partner with HR before there are problems to clearly understand what you need to do as a manager to protect yourself and the company, and the types of documentation they require. At the first sign of danger with an employee, reach out to HR to get their advice. If you position yourself as a partner, respect their perspective and demonstrate that you can competently handle employee performance issues, HR is much more likely to work with you toward the outcome you want.

Relax and have a conversation with the employee

When you’re close to the end, the situation has often deteriorated into the delivery of threats and warnings. While being clear and legally foolproof is necessary at this stage, it can result in both the manager freezing up and digging in. You’re frustrated and “done” with the employee; the employee is feeling backed into a corner and threatened. Not the best place from which to make decisions.

“Close to the End” Questions
You’ve told me that the situation would improve many times and it hasn’t. Can you explain the disconnect between what you’ve said you’ll do and what you’ve done? What do you think is the best route to take in this situation? I don’t see a positive outcome if things don’t change and I want to get your perspective. What’s your understanding of what will happen if this doesn’t improve? Do you understand the consequences of the direction you’re heading? The choice is ultimately yours. Do you think this job is for you? Have you considered moving into a position that is more suited to your interests and talents?

When you get close to the end, you can sleep well at night if you have one last conversation with the low-performer. No warnings, no paperwork, just a conversation. Try using one of the “close to the end” questions in the box on page 6 to spur an honest and dispassionate discussion with the employee about where the situation is headed, what you hope will happen (the situation will improve), and the consequences of non-performance. This conversation moves the decision-making power back to the employee. If they choose to continue in their low performance, the outcome is decided. Ultimately, they decide whether rewards come their way or if their employment continues. If the employee chooses the path of non-improvement, your responsibility as a manager is to point out the choice that they made and follow through on the promised outcome.

Ultimately, the question of “why?” — Why won’t this employee comply? Why won’t he care? Why won’t he improve? — is moot. As long as you know the employee had the ability, the training and the support necessary to meet performance expectations, and you were clear about what was required and provided opportunities to improve, you’ve done your job as a manager. Your job is to manage the situation in a way that ensures the outcomes are positive across the board — for the company, for your team, for yourself and, yes, for the employee.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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