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Ronald A. Williams, a leadership coach with 40 years of experience, shares his insight on managing poor performers.
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A Practical Approach to Understanding and Addressing Poor Performance

Everyone on the lab staff needs to contribute their highest-level work

Olena Shynkaruk, PhD

Olena Shynkaruk, PhD, is a freelance science writer and editor with a love for languages. She is a Ukrainian Canadian who has studied, worked, and presented internationally. Her experience as...

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Poor performance can be detrimental to the lab culture and workplace well-being. It negatively impacts team morale, leading to loss of human capital, productivity, and profitability. In this article, Ronald A. Williams, a leadership coach with 40 years of public and private sector experience and the creator of the LinkedIn online course, “How to Handle Poor Performers,” shares his insight on managing poor performers—from how to identify and approach them to how to improve their performance and when it’s time to let them go.

Ronald A. Williams
Ronald A. Williams
Lab Manager

Q: How does a manager spot poor performance?

A: Without the standard in the work environment, it is hard to identify poor performance. So, we need to set a standard. For example, if the standard is one mistake, and someone is making zero mistakes, they are an above-average performer. If someone is making one mistake, they are an average performer, and if they are making two or more, they are a poor performer. Moreover, poor performers have four identifiable characteristics: 1. They consistently don't produce results that the manager expects or wants. 2. They make more mistakes than others. 3. The manager spends more time handling them than anybody else, and 4. If the manager is not consistently handling them, there are ongoing issues.

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Q: What does a manager need to overcome challenges with poor performers?

A: As managers, you need data and data analytics to deal with poor performance. Performance is related to people’s behavior. You do not hire people and tell them to be nice; you hire nice people. One question you need to ask yourself as a manager is, “Knowing what you know about the employee today, would you hire them again for this position?” If your answer is no, then this is an unacceptable situation that you need to deal with. 

Q: What are the negative impacts of not addressing a poor performer?

A: Poor performers impact morale, and morale is critical in the organization. Suppose you have a poor performer that you haven’t addressed on the team. The following situation can happen: The manager will engage a high performer more, leading to unequal work distribution, a sense of unfairness, and dissatisfaction with the workplace. Why? Because high performers are highly engaged. They give you discretionary effort and high intent to stay, but if you put them in the situation mentioned above, the discretionary effort goes away, and the intent to stay diminishes. Most people leave not the company but a manager. In this case, high performers won’t tolerate a manager who allows poor performance. They lose respect for the leadership, and they leave. So, if you have poor performers, they can increase the turnover, drive the high performers away, and decrease productivity, which will ultimately affect the profitability of the lab. [Author’s note: For additional information, please see Lab Manager’s article3 discussing the negative impacts of ignoring poor performers.]

Q: How does a manager successfully deal with poor performance?

A: The manager needs to know three critical Ts: Train, Transfer, and Terminate. In dealing with poor performance, a manager has a responsibility to discern if a person doesn't know how to do the job or doesn't want to do it. If the former is true, the manager needs to train them. If the latter is true, it is probably a people issue, and the manager needs to identify and evaluate the issue. This is where transfer or termination comes in.

Q: How do you approach a poor performer? What are the key elements to having a difficult conversation?

A: Poor managers may not want to engage with poor performers for a variety of fear-based reasons, including the risk of an EEOC (The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaint filed against them, a lack of confidence to initiate the difficult conversation with the employee, or the fear of the unknown that comes with hiring and onboarding a replacement for the poor performer. But good managers do not manage or lead out of fear. When dealing with poor performers, good managers have the managerial courage to act. This action starts with a difficult conversation, and there are five key elements for its success: 1. Do not confront a poor performer in anger, so you do not create an emotional situation. 2. Do it immediately. If you wait to give the feedback for too long, you will hurt the workplace well-being. For example, waiting for an annual performance review could be too long of a wait. 3. Do it in private. 4. Have the performance standard outlined. However, if there was no standard when an employee started, these conversations could become even more difficult. 5. Be specific and clear and have the evidence or data for their performance or behaviour. You cannot use anecdotal information. While being specific, be cautious of softening the evidence: “If you give them too much sugar, they might not taste the medicine.” The good news is that once confronted, a poor performer either improves or moves.

Q: What strategies and tools can you use to motivate or improve an individual’s performance?

A: A good manager gives a poor performer opportunity to change and sets many employee touchpoints for informal feedback beyond formal mid-term and end-of-year reviews. Improving an individual’s performance is a progressive discipline, and you need to document every step. The process starts with a verbal reprimand, followed by a written reprimand and a performance improvement plan (PIP). With verbal reprimand, you acknowledge their less than stellar performance and identify specific areas they need to improve. The written reprimand is similar to the verbal reprimand, but it is kept in the employee’s file. You hope that when you give them verbal or written reprimand, an employee will ask how they can improve and what they need to do better. Next comes a PIP. The main difference between a reprimand and PIP is that the latter identifies actionable items, performance indicators, training responsibilities, and timeframes. PIP also holds an employee accountable to improve to a certain standard within the outlined timeframe and includes follow-up. 

Q: When does a manager need to terminate a poor performer?

A: If the employee did not improve, you need to terminate them. You need to know that you did not fire them, but they fired themselves by showing an inability to change their performance. Keeping them on the team enables poor performance and hurts the team, and then the manager becomes a part of the problem.

Lab Manager has previously discussed a variety of digital tools to boost a lab’s productivity1. These tools can also be used to obtain employee performance data by allowing staff and managers to arrange check-ins, give feedback, and set goals. For more guidance on how to set clear, achievable goals, see Sherri Bassner’s Lab Manager article2 on managing lab employee performance.