Low Performing Employees: The Inheritance No One Wants

by Jamie Resker | Posted | Communication

Low Performing Employees: The Inheritance No One Wants

This post was written in collaboration with Michael Shipman, VP of Talent and Organizational Development at Rockland Trust.

A friend of mine (let's call her Wendy) has just accepted an executive director role in a non-profit organization. She is excited for the opportunity but at the same time she is dreading an inheritance. Not a financial inheritance but a low-performing employee inheritance. Wendy is taking on a new challenge by leading and growing this organization but at the same time she is taking on a known underperformer that she's inheriting from the former leader.

During Wendy's interview the "underperformer issue" came up. The current executive director talked about how ineffective this individual has been and rattled off a laundry list of performance problems. Each sentence started with, "She doesn't... she can't... she won't..."

That's when Wendy asked, "So have you talked with her about these things?" Sheepishly the executive director admitted she had not.


Options for dealing with low performing employees

With under-management being an epidemic in our day and age, the chances of you inheriting a low performing employee are quite high, and most likely guaranteed at some point in your career.

You have three options:

  1. Join the ranks of under-managing managers by going silent and letting the under-performer slide.
  2. Rant to colleagues, HR and others to vent about the employee (but never talk to the low performing employee).
  3. Exercise spinal fortitude and hold the conversation that should have been had by past leaders.

Hopefully it's obvious that we advocate option #3.

So how should a conversation with a low performer go?

Here are some approaches along with words you can use to communicate your expectations.

The setting: You're the new manager and it's week one on the job. You'll want to meet with everyone on the team, and this presents the opportunity to initiate the conversation about performance expectations with the known under-performer (we'll refer to her as Kim).

Wendy, the manager: Hi Kim, I'm meeting with everyone on the team to begin the process of getting to know one another. I know it can be a little scary having a new boss so I think it's a good start to talk about our work styles and expectations of one another. How does that sound?

Kim, the under performer: Sounds good to me.

Wendy: First I'll say that my expectations will likely be different from the last executive director's. That's why I want to have this conversation about expectations up front so that we avoid a potentially awkward conversation down the road when you realize I expect different things from you. To me it makes sense to start out this way. Does this make sense to you?

Kim: Absolutely. What kind of expectations do you have in mind?

Wendy: Your role will continue to be the same, and I'd like to walk through your position description so I can clearly set the expectations for fulfilling your role.

Handling resistance

You may hear something like: "I've worked here for six years and the last two directors never told me these things were expected, so I'm wondering why this is coming up now."

This very response is likely the reason you may have considered perpetuating the under-management of this employee.

Instead, anticipate this response and know what to say to effectively manage the conversation.

Here's a sample conversation:

Kim, the underperformer: "All I can say is that the previous two directors never brought this up, so I'm wondering why it's coming up now."

Wendy, the manager: "I hear what you're saying and while I can't speak for previous managers I'm very open about giving feedback and setting clear expectations. If I'm not setting clear expectations, then I'm not doing my job as a manager. Plus, the last thing I want to do is wait until it's performance review time. I'd rather have the conversation now. The expectations for the executive assistant that I've outlined are important and essential for any person in this role. My sense is that these are things you're definitely capable of doing. What do you think?"

Dos and don'ts of initiating a conversation about low performance


Start listing the things you've heard that this person may have done wrong in the past. This is a surefire way to get the relationship off to a bad start.

Instead, focus on future-oriented statements that describe the performance you want to see. This removes judgment and criticism.


Take all of the things you've heard that she doesn't do or do well and turn them around to describe the tasks, behaviors and outcomes that you do want.

Turnaround examples describing the target performance

1. Disheveled

Let's say your underperforming employee has a disheveled and unkempt appearance. You might take that and say something like: "Since your position represents the office of the Executive Director, which includes a lot of interaction with board members, I'd like to see you develop a more polished and professional image. Would you be open to some coaching around this?"

2. Unreliable, tardiness, absenteeism work hours

If the issue relates to unreliability, tardiness or absenteeism, say: "Because this job requires greeting visitors starting at 8 am, I'd like you to keep to a regular work schedule. That means being ready to interact with visitors or answer phone calls starting at 8 am. If on occasion something arises of a personal nature, then let me know in advance and that way we can work together to find coverage for that time."

Don't stop there, follow-up

If you stepped up and initiated the conversation about expectations, then pat yourself on the back; you've just broken the perpetuation of under- managing this low performing employee. Perhaps with good feedback and direction this individual will raise his/her performance to an acceptable level.

However, timely follow-up is important!

Typically managers wait 30 to 60 days to follow up with employees after addressing a performance issue. This is way too long to wait.

Letting too much time go by puts you back to square one and gives the employee the impression that the performance issue is not that important.

We can't emphasize enough the importance of weekly meetings!

What if the employee still isn't meeting target performance?

You can't make the low performing employee act on your feedback and expectations.

Even with clear expectations and reasonable support you may find that the employee can't or won't meet the target performance. At this point make the difficult but right decision:

  • Follow your organization's exit plan process (bonus: your documentation for this problem performer is already in place)
  • Open up the position occupied by this individual to internal and external candidates
  • Rest easy knowing you've tried to help the employee out and now the obvious option is to help the employee out

If the employee isn't successful in the role and you need to cut the cord quickly versus letting it drag on. It's not fair to you, the manager, fellow colleagues who have to deal with the low performer or the low performing employee.

After all, this employee may be more successful applying his or her talents in another organization. Why should you get in the way of that possibility?

Break the cycle of under-management

Break the cycle of under-managing low performing employees. Don't let the fact that the employee has been in the position long term and has exhibited a pattern of tolerated under-performance stop you.

Think first of the position and the essential behaviors and job skills required to be successful. Then communicate these expectations to the employee up front using some of the strategies and talking point we've described.

And meet with all your employees regularly - weekly for low-performers - to have that conversation about performance and expectations. That way, you'll build a legacy of high performance.

Performance Conversations (for real): In Just Ten Minutes a Month

Watch this interactive, practical webcast and learn three simple and proven steps that will have everyone engaged in giving and receiving ongoing performance feedback.

Watch Now
Cover of the book
Cover of the book

Performance Conversations (for real): In Just Ten Minutes a Month

Watch this interactive, practical webcast and learn three simple and proven steps that will have everyone engaged in giving and receiving ongoing performance feedback.

Watch Now

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