27 September 2023

Lifting the game: Low performers and how to deal with them

Start the conversation

Jessica Miller-Merrell* says managers need to know how to address a low performer once they have been identified.

Photo: Sam Solomon

Recruiting and HR leaders have a lot of pressure to screen and identify top talent to present to hiring managers.

However, there are things we can’t see no matter how much due diligence we use during the screening process.

We can screen for skills, culture fit, and many personality traits, but unless we’re capable of predicting the future accurately, identifying candidates that may turn out to be low performers is tricky.

Oftentimes low performers aren’t low performers in their first 90 days on the job, and high performers can become low performers, so it’s important we educate managers on how to address a low performer once they have been identified.

Employee performance can negatively impact the organisation

According to data from an Eagle Hill National Attrition Survey, low performers can have significantly negative effects on an organisation.

The management survey reports that:

  • 68 per cent say low performers lower overall workplace morale.
  • 44 per cent say low performers increase the work burden on high performers.
  • 54 per cent say low performers contribute to a lack of initiative and motivation, resulting in a work culture where mediocrity is accepted.

So how do we identify low performing employees?

It’s important to understand how these employees impact the rest of your workforce, and the impact of not addressing performance issues.

Top employee excuses for low performance

We’ve all worked with people who do the minimum to “get by.”

And we know the frustration that comes from trying to coach or mentor team members who exhibit some or all of these behaviours:

“It’s not my job.”

You’ll never hear this phrase from top performing employees.

A high performer recognises that they’re part of a team and are willing to adapt to changes in the workplace.

Low performers tend to resist change and stick to what they were hired to do — and only what they were hired to do.

This can be minimised early with a job description that explicitly states the expectation of development, growth, and additional challenges.

A lack of motivation.

Someone with 100 per cent motivation and 75 performance ability can achieve above-average performance.

But a worker with 75 per cent ability won’t be able to achieve the type of performance you expect without motivation.

This is a signal that they’re not willing to develop, learn, be better, and contribute more.

They complain constantly.

It doesn’t matter why someone is complaining or whom they are complaining to (or about), complaints often show that someone is not willing to put in the work to make a change.

It’s a time waster, and it’s almost always easier to complain than to be productive.

They make excuses.

If things don’t get done because something else takes priority, that’s bound to happen from time to time.

However, if things aren’t’ getting done because of an unfair excuse, that’s a problem with the employee.

If there seems to be an excuse for everything, you might have a low performer on your hands.

They care a lot about credit.

Low performers only worry about being productive if it’s going to get them credit in the long run.

Most of our accomplishments are collaborative efforts, and someone who only does things for personal gain is not looking out for the team or the organisation.

All of these (or just some of them) add up to a low performing employee.

Now that we’ve identified them, it’s time to address their performance.

Continuous performance management is the key

Con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance man­age­ment is defined as per­for­mance man­age­ment process­es that take place through­out the year.

It is a con­tin­u­al process, as opposed to those based on tra­di­tion­al annu­al appraisals.

Feed­back occurs more often and it feels more nat­ur­al for both man­ag­er and employ­ee.

In Betterworks’ 2018 State of Performance Management Survey, survey respondents who adopted a continuous performance management process reported significantly lower incidences of key challenges associated with annual reviews, such as:

  • Reviews being too subjective.
  • Reviews failing to improve performance.
  • Managers not providing quality feedback.

What to say to low-performing employees

The most important thing is to have a consistent conversation with all team members, without singling out a specific employee.

But understand that continuous performance management is designed to address low-performing employees.

There should be an ongoing feedback loop with very specific goals and performance indicators, as well as clear expectations for improvement.

Your performance feedback must be regular and frequent with key feedback, suggestions, and examples.

Continuous performance management works better than annual reviews, because your low performer has a finite amount of time to improve and less time to drain your resources and budget (and the morale of the rest of your team).

* Jessica Miller-Merrell is workplace change agent, author and founder of Workology. She tweets at @jmillermerrell.

This article first appeared at workology.com.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.