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How to Deal with Poorly Performing Employees (Opinion)

Dealing with poorly performing employees is costly, but key approaches can help manage the issue.

Everybody knows that hiring mistakes are costly, but can you put a number to that cost? A few years ago, the Future Foundation in the United Kingdom did just that using a simple method: Multiply the number of managers in a given country by their average salary.

Then multiply that number by the percentage of time they spend dealing with underperforming employees. The results were staggering. In the United States, managers spend an estimated $105 billion annually dealing with poor performers.

In an environment where budgets are tighter than ever and resources are squeezed all around, organizational units and employees are constantly being asked to do more with less. The result is tremendous pressure on all to hit the ground running, make every person count and meet aggressive performance targets.

Yet managers often find themselves failing to make their employees’ unique talents mesh with the organization’s expectations. This is costly — and frustrating for managers and employees. Both believe they’re right, yet the work outcome is still less than optimal.

But finding the right candidate for a job is much like finding a spouse — it requires the right chemistry. There’s a critical difference between having great qualifications and being the right person for a particular job, which is a concept that organizational behavior specialists refer to as “person-job fit.” Jeffrey R. Edwards, distinguished professor of organizational behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, believes it’s critical to match the individual and the position correctly. He calls it a fundamental concern for individuals and organizations, in that good fit increases job satisfaction, reduces job stress and enhances overall effectiveness.

All managers will eventually confront the issue of poor person-job fit. Most will try to coach, counsel, mentor and train the employee, but if those things don’t work, they may try to find a better fit for the employee inside or outside of the organization.

As long as the fit problem persists, however, there’s heartache all around.  Tasks pile up or need redoing, miscommunications abound and other employees become resentful of the extra work that inevitably gets shifted to them.

So what is the manager to do? Let the problem linger and morale suffer? Address it head-on and face the prospect of a time-consuming, possibly even litigious, process?

What complicates the matter is that sometimes the manager is the problem; sometimes when individuals are deemed to have performance problems, the reality is that their managers are being subjective, arbitrary or vindictive. In this case, perhaps the manager is misfit for his or her position (of authority) and the employee is the unfortunate victim.

Assuming that one is a competent manager with good intentions, there are three key approaches that can help manage the issue of person-job fit most effectively.

First, expect excellence. The “labeling theory” has shown that employees perform better when the bar is set high. Work performance is often like a self-fulfilling prophecy in which people live up (or down) to the expectations that others have of them.

Second, as one of my mentors told me years ago, “set people up to succeed.” Do everything in your power to help your employees do their jobs successfully — giving them not just respect and empowerment, but also resources, recognition, training, tools and more.

Third, resist the impulse to do the work yourself. It may be intuitive to simply roll up your sleeves and get it done, but autonomy and the pleasure of accomplishment are some of the greatest contributors to an employee’s job satisfaction. Balance providing input and guidance with allowing employees to try it their way, make their own mistakes and learn independently from them.

In the end, it all comes down to the golden rule: Treat others as you’d want to be treated. When you see employees struggling, try to bring them up to speed in every way possible. If that doesn’t work, help them find a better position to continue their path of professional and personal development, while searching for someone who better meets the job requirements. That kind of win-win is best all the way around — for manager, organization and employee.

Andy Blumenthal is a division chief at the U.S. Department of State. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at Blumenthal’s views are his own and do not represent those of any agency.