Employ remedial measures, role reversal for underperformance

How should managements deal with low performers? Three experts give their suggestions

Need to give a second chance

—Kavita Mathur, people and culture leader, Grant Thornton

Underperformance is a manifestation of both skill and will, says Mathur. “Hiring procedures often fail to recognize cognitive abilities, thus leading to a mismatch in expectations. On the other hand could be symptoms such as lack of interest, compromised quality, tardiness and delays. Together they contribute to underperformance,” she says. Instinctively, an unconscious bias kicks in triggering potential responses like pinpointing or labelling, which could lead to termination, she adds.

Dynamic organizations have little to no tolerance towards underperformance and rightly so, says Mathur.

However, the counterargument suggests a need to give such individuals a second chance, owing to an initial investment made in hiring the individual, she says.

“Empirical data suggests that there are good chances for recovery should the individual be given 30 to 60 days as remedial,” adds Mathur.

This is the time a well-trained people manager should utilize in having authentic conversations in providing individuals with specific instances where he or she demonstrated good performance and instance to the contrary; encouraging the individual in calling out constraints, and challenges related to the work and the workplace coming in the way of attainment of results, she says.

The people manager should work with the individual on how he or she could adapt behaviour to make a positive impact in the workplace and have clearly defined measurable goals to be achieved in the designated time, and identifying training programmes available in the organization which further help develop the individual’s capabilities in the identified areas, adds Mathur.

However, while doing all of this, people managers should budget time for regular check-ins on the progress the individual is making and test once again by assigning the individual a project.

If the investment does not yield necessary results and the individual continues to struggle, it should be an indication to cut the ties albeit in a dignified manner, indicative of the organization’s value charter, she says.

Swaraj Singh Dhanjal

Firms adopting standard approach

—Vimal Bhandari, managing director and CEO, IndoStar Capital Finance

While Indian companies have traditionally believed in giving a much wider leeway to underperforming or non-performing employees, they are now embracing the idea of an amicable separation, says Bhandari.

Over the last 10 years, domestic companies have tried to bring in a more standard approach while dealing with employees that do not perform as expected, according to Bhandari.

“Typically, when we are dealing with the junior most level of employees, we inform them about any kind of gaps in their performance and give them some time to pull up their socks. We may even look at giving them a different role that would suit their talent and capability,” he says.

If the employees at this level are still not able to perform, they are told to find other jobs, albeit in a humane and delicate manner. According to Bhandari, these employees get a few months to find a new job and only then they are told to leave.

“This let’s them find good opportunities without the stigma of having been fired,” he says.

When it comes to middle management, underperformers are usually those that cannot manage small teams or are not that great at multitasking. Another issue that may come up among these employees is dissatisfaction with other staffers, who are either above their level or those who work under them. These employees are again counselled and provided a different role if need be.

“Usually companies give them about six months to see if they can improve their productivity. But if they still can’t improve much, we believe a mutual separation is best,” he says.

In case of the top rung of managers, the trouble usually comes due to differences between them and the owner of the firm. For this, companies have started inviting professionals to offer counselling to the senior managers and bring out the issues so they can be resolved. “Companies don’t really want to lose the managers at this level because they are so deeply involved with the smooth functioning of the company and take key decisions,” says Bhandari.

Once the problems are brought out, the companies try and fix them and offer different roles to these managers.

“If the dissatisfaction persists, then a separation would probably be the best idea here,” he adds.

Vishwanath Nair

Improvement programme must

—S. Raghunath, professor (corporate strategy and policy), Indian Institute of Management Bangalore

Managing poor performers is a major challenge and companies should follow a fair process by starting a performance improvement programme for the underperformers before dismissing them, according to Raghunath.

“Anyone who has even a hint of being a ‘free rider’ in a company is at a risk of losing his or her job. Clearly, it is important for employees to prepare themselves for a changing world of business,” he says.

Raghunath says replacing employees at the same pace at which they are terminated is not an easy proposition for employers. “Therefore managing poor performers remains a major challenge for companies and their front-line managers who have assumed this responsibility,” he adds.

To follow a fair process, companies in such a situation should initiate a three-month-long performance improvement programme for underperforming employees, says Raghunath.

“During this programme, it is likely that a significant percentage of such employees may initiate action to find alternative employment. However, the performance improvement programme can turn around the performance of some if not all underperforming employees,” he adds.

This would involve discussing the problem directly with the concerned employee; communicating the expectations with the person and identifying the reasons for poor performance, Raghunath says, and adds: “In such programmes, communicating expectations is a critical aspect and letting the employee know that his/her performance is unacceptable and what acceptable performance standards are.”

During the performance improvement programme, the employee has to be watched very closely and appropriate feedback may be given on a continuous basis. “Clearly if performance continues to hover below standard, alternative work can be offered; or the employee may be dismissed,” he says.

According to Raghunath, front-line managers are critical to this process of problem identification and agreement, establishing the reasons for underperformance, deciding and agreeing on the action required, in addition to providing training, monitoring performance and giving appropriate actionable feedback.

Bidya Sapam