How to work with an Employee Not Meeting Expectations

Giving direct feedback can be difficult but is critical


Malhar Lakshman , Fri 16 September 2022
Most managers and companies tend to prioritize results and goals over other aspects of the work like team chemistry or organizational citizenship. Generally, direct reports assume the role of a vital cog in this process. However, when direct reports fail to meet expectations, it can result in a lot of work for their peers, as well as their managers. Consequently, the first step a manager will take is often a reprimand followed by termination.

Why Terminations aren’t necessarily the Best Option

            Firstly, the most important aspect of terminating, or firing an employee, is that a replacement worker must be found. Sometimes, a manager can get lucky and find a good candidate in-house, but the majority of times, they need to go through the entire hiring process once more.  

The hiring process includes posting an advertisement, reading through applications, scheduling and hosting interviews, conducting background checks, validating certifications, and on top of that, an onboarding process. In addition to that, the former employee will typically receive some form of a severance package with the parting of ways.  Termination also eats up time with exit interviews, appeals, and potential litigation as a result of unlawful termination claims. 

All in all, terminations can be very expensive for time and money. But how else should a manager deal with an employee who isn’t necessarily living up to the expectations held of them?  There are typically a few options.

Understanding the Root of the Problem

As with many other discrepancies within the workplace, communicating with an employee can often result in finding the source of the problem. Oftentimes, people have personal baggage that may make its way within the workplace. In addition to baggage, worker stress is a very real phenomenon. In most circumstances, bad employees aren’t intentionally bad employees, they just made decisions that negatively impacted the business and didn’t have anyone to bounce the idea of logic off of before acting.

Signs of worker stress include the following:

·       Reclusive Behavior- This does not include introverted behavior, but rather the contrast between this and previous behavior.
·       Change in  Body Language- This once again, does not necessarily mean introverted behavior,  but rather withdrawn activity, slumps, and similar posture.
·       Personality Clashes- When someone is in distress or dealing with trauma, they may lash out at other people, or attempt to withhold their grief. 
·       Change in Productivity- Trauma survivors tend to have harsh changes in how much work they can accomplish.

One thing to take note of is that these are often signs of distress within most areas, but are often better exposed within the workplace. If a manager notices that one of their direct reports undergoes a sudden change in attitude, while also displaying signs of anxiety or depression, it may be best to have a 1:1 with them. Being empathetic will often yield much greater results than being confrontational within this 1:1. Understand that it takes a significant amount of trauma for a person to have changed a significant amount. 

A good example of this would be from one of my jobs while in high school, which was the role of a swim coach. I was a member of a team of 7, with shifts assigned to us by our aquatics director each week, and sometimes also by our camp director. We continued in this way for two to three years, and then all of a sudden, we were either missing pay, not getting our names on the schedule, or worst of all, not receiving a schedule whatsoever. We ended up complaining to our director since it appeared that our camp director was not fulfilling her job requirements, and as a result, damaging our financial abilities with no regard for or time. 

Our boss was a very thorough individual and was able to have a healthy conversation with our camp director, out of concern for her performance, as well as her well-being. It had turned out that she had not only lost her father the previous week but had also been given additional responsibilities by the overall site director. With no other relatives, she alone was in charge of managing all probate-related duties and processes, but also organizing funeral details and bills. All in all, she was completely overwhelmed. 

Now, in worse managed work environments, this camp director, despite boasting over 15 years of experience in the field, would’ve been terminated. However, our boss knew her potential, and that this was a life-changing period of time for her. Therefore, he took on additional responsibilities and gave her as much time off as she needed. About a month later, she came back and was able to not only resume her original responsibilities but also that of her new position, to much more success. 

The moral of this story is that being empathetic is well-advised. Proper communication with direct reports is not only better for workplace relationships, but also ideal for difficult situations such as this. Providing accommodations for workers can eliminate the need for a replacement process.

How to Help Employees who are having trouble meeting expectations

While there are often employees who are undergoing significant personal situations, some employees may be unaccustomed to their new workloads, and responsibilities, or just find the material difficult. In this case, it is the manager’s responsibility and duty to try to assist these individuals. 

Using an impartial process can often help employees who are struggling. These are often known as Performance Improvement Plans or PIPs. The one problem with these is that they are often viewed extremely negatively, and often as a pathway to termination. Rather than giving strong targets that must be hit in order to maintain a job, managers should give fluid and flexible objectives that will not only allow for more success, but also for employee education and improvement. Using a device such as AIM Insights can also allow for a manager to have greater ease checking what goals have been met, along with more aggregated data about these goals, such as percent of goals achieved, and similar functions.

No manager should want to terminate an employee but may feel pressure to do so. While termination may still be required, it is best to approach these situations with empathy, and attempt to solve the problem in-house without resorting to this step.


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