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How to handle underperforming employees

Updated on November 22, 2014
C.V.Rajan profile image

C.V.Rajan is a retired Engineer. Backed by 3 decades of industrial experience, he writes on several aspects of business, management and HR.

Not all employees are deployed at work with the freedom of choice given to the manager or supervisor. Many times, presence of underperforming employees in a team is quite a practical reality and the supervisor or manager inherits a team with their presence and he/she has to produce results with it.

Underperforming employees can be classified into a few categories and techniques of handling them will vary depending on where they fit in.

Misfits! | Source


A team may contain employees who “somehow got into the team” (there could be several reasons for it), who are devoid of the qualifications or training or aptitude for the job. When the aptitude is missing, basic skills are hopelessly lacking and willingness to learn is absent in an employee, he becomes a misfit in the team. It is not that the person is useless, but his contribution can be there for the organization elsewhere.

The duty of the manager in this case is to see whether he has the wherewithal to influence the higher management to shift the employee to a different department where he can contribute. If such a move is not possible, the manager has to put him to handle less important responsibilities that he can do without much of expertise. In the long run, the manager has to do lots of motivation to change the mindset of the employee and provide him with training to make him learn the tricks of the trade so that he too can contribute productively after learning the fundamentals.

Skills Under-developed

Some of the underperforming employees may remain so because their skills are underdeveloped. For example, a fresh graduate mechanical Engineer may have learnt some basic CAD (Computer aided design) techniques in college, but he might have been put into “designing something” actually using CAD. His theoretical knowledge gained in college does not take him far in actually designing something, though he may be knowledgeable in handling the tool, namely CAD.

It’s here comes the need of apprenticeship. This person has to be put under the guidance of a working, experienced design engineer, so that he learns practically how to start from scratch in actually going about designing something in real life.


Knowledgeable but lazy

This category is very difficult to handle. At times, such an employee may have much more in-depth knowledge and experience than the boss; generally very senior employees who have put in lots of experience within the firm fit into the category. They may have their own grouse against the firm – perceived lack of recognition, absence of promotion, younger and educationally better qualified employees getting better salary and promotion opportunities at the cost of their experience and service to the organization and so on.

Aging and loss of enthusiasm too can make them underperforming.

Such employees need to be handled with respect; their seniority and experience have to be appreciated frequently. Consulting them on crucial decision making will boost their ego. No bossy coercion or high-handed techniques will work with them.


Capable but overloaded

Certain capable employees will establish their indispensability in the organization by willingly taking up more and more work and responsibilities; they will be irresistible "yes-men" to their bosses and the bosses would gladly keep loading more and more work on them because they are willing to do. They will stay late, come in weekends and work, but their efficiency would start sinking; their piled up would keep adding and they would end up giving more and more excuses and false promises about their missed commitments.

The only way to get them on track is to forcefully take away some of their responsibilities and giving to someone other, even if the other person is not all that capable. By properly guiding, training and developing another person, the organization would benefit in two ways. One, the dependence on a single, specialist person goes; he would not get any opportunity to do any arm-twisting in future because of his coveted position. Second, you have an alternative person to keep things going in case the first, highly capable person quits unexpectedly.

Make him a manager!

This suggestion may sound funny, but there are some employees who lack specific skills, in depth technical knowledge, willingness to learn etc., but they may be quite good and smart in man management. They may be capable of getting things done through others better than doing things themselves. They may have smart interpersonal skills naturally developed in them. If such traits are found in a person, it is better to shift him to do supervisory or managerial jobs than trying to make him learn or develop specific technical skills.


Employee with a clout

Beware of underperforming employees who have a visible on invisible clout behind them. The employee could be a brother-in-law of the chief executive. He could be an office bearer of the employee union. Such employees are best left undisturbed, if the boss wants his seat to remain secure!


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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Very thoughtful and good advise. Thank you.