Improving Underperforming Employees: How Your Values Can Help

Oh, how we fear the curse of the underperforming employee. On our teams, underperformers wreck the work balance and leave others to pick up the slack. Personally, we fear that we might become underperforming employees as our organizations leave us behind.

And managers? Finding ways to improve work performance is part of our managers’ job description, so underperforming employees on their teams mean that those managers are also underperforming.

In reality, every employee will miss expectations and underperform at one time or another. But how your organization’s values define these expectations determines whether your employees’ experience leads them to improvement or failure. Matching performance management to the individual instead of relying on blanket policies can make all the difference.

The Deep Scars of Competitive Performance Management

A friend of mine told me about her experience in an organization that followed the rank and yank philosophy popularized by Jack Welch when he was CEO of GE. Every quarter, every team had to identify the bottom 20 percent of their workforce and create individual improvement plans. Employees who failed to meet their improvement goals would be terminated.

This plan may have led to improved results for the sales or support teams, if at the cost of a much-increased hiring budget. Unfortunately, my friend was a graphic designer on a small creative team of fewer than twenty people. In her years working there, her team members took multiple turns in the improvement-plan hot seat. The arbitrary policy forced her manager to strain for reasons that the team members were underperforming, and then hang their future employment on improving those subjective measurements.

After her third turn on the hot seat, my friend quit and became a freelancer. The questionable job security wasn’t worth the uncertainty and stress that came from her organization’s method of dealing with underperforming employees.

Over the past couple of decades, many organizations have seen the results of rank and yank policies and abandoned the idea. That includes GE, the company that invented the policy. The policy even brought lawsuits from employees who felt that age discrimination played a part in their rank. But the question of how to motivate an employee who is underperforming remains, and employees still fear that their next performance review will be their last.

When it comes to performance management, organizations have a choice: they can punish underperforming employees for poor results, or they can identify areas of improvement and make plans to improve. Paradoxically, constantly comparing results can teach employees that it’s more important to look better than the guy in the next cubicle than it is to actually improve performance.

So how do you overcome these lingering issues and help underperforming employees make real improvements? It starts with clarifying your organization’s values and aligning your employees’ experience with those values.

Assume the Best; Do the Right Thing

BambooHR wanted to make it clear that the employee experience matters most as we developed our values. While all seven of our values work together to define the workplace we want to build, two, in particular, apply to performance and employee expectations: Assume the Best and Do the Right Thing.

Assume the Best focuses on removing the competitive detraction that’s leftover from the rank-and-yank years. We encourage our employees to view mistakes from their fellow employees as simply that: honest errors (not attempts at sabotage).

Most of the reason this value works so well is because of how it pairs with another value: Do the Right Thing. When it comes to employee performance, this value sets high expectations: doing the right thing for our team members and clients requires everyone to live up to their job descriptions, plus a little extra where possible.

Put together, these two values allow employees to learn and grow without fearing the repercussions of making a mistake. This has led to practices like the “oops email”: for example, if a developer breaks the site and prevents other departments from doing their work, then that developer will send out an email to the organization in which they identify the problem, analyze how it happened, and state what they’re going to do differently in the future. And no sales rep gets fired because the outage made him miss a quota while in the bottom 20 percent.

We know that implementing this balance of responsibility and forgiveness isn’t as simple as chanting a four-word mantra while wearing ritual panda hoods in the first-floor breakroom every morning. (Not that that stops us.) But these values provide a simple guide for shaping our employee experience, from choosing whom we hire to deciding how to handle performance management and compensation.

It’s a tall order to take a comprehensive condition like culture and distill it down into actionable steps that apply to every underperforming employee. That’s likely what led to rank and yank in the first place. But there are principles that you can follow to improve the employee experience for individuals and teams in your organization.

Three Collaborative Ways to Improve Underperforming Employees

Identify how performance measurement relates to an overarching goal. Is the goal of your attendance policies to just have someone sitting at their desk looking busy? Is the goal of your performance review process to justify someone’s current compensation, or to develop their career in your organization? Over time, these goals will become clear to your employees as they experience your day-to-day culture.

Recognize and account for manager subjectivity. The flip side of an underperforming employee can be an overly-subjective manager. While there’s no escaping manager subjectivity, you can account for it with standardized employee assessment practices. This is especially helpful when an employee’s contributions aren’t easy to quantify (like my graphic designer friend in the example earlier).

Communicate frequently and openly. The best time to help an employee change course is right after they make a wrong turn, not six months down the road. Developing a combination of informal in-the-moment feedback and regular one-on-one meetings can give managers the opportunity to make these course corrections and employees the opportunity to provide their feedback in return. Manager and employee can then reach a solution that works for everyone.

Your employees are your organization’s most valuable asset—not just for what they’re contributing today, but for their future potential. Aligning your values, expectations, and employee experience can help reconnect underperforming employees with a brighter future.