Tips to Improve Work Performance When You Inherit an Underperforming Employee

Many supervisors and managers will find themselves in a situation where they inherit underperforming employees. Hopefully, these tips to improve work performance will give you a plan with the intention of a positive outcome for your new team.


Tips to Improve Work Performance of Underperformers 

Whether you were recently promoted, your company went through a reorganization, or you are starting a new job, these tips can help you approach the underachieving employees to turn around their work performance.

Form your own opinion

Once in my past as a manager, I inherited a two-person team. Both of their previous managers, who had been unsuccessful with improving the work performance, predicted I would have to fire both underperforming employees. The first thing I did was ignore their information so I could form my own opinion.  

I wanted to approach both employees with empathy and not prejudge their performance. My intentions were to help them be successful and prove the former managers wrong. 

Get to know them

I took the time to get to know each of them privately in our 1:1 meetings. I wanted to understand their background, education, and previous roles with the company.  

  • How long had they been with the company?
  • What was their understanding of the job?
  • Were they using all of their skills? 
  • Were they bored or overwhelmed?
  • Did they have ideas for the team?

I found that one of my team members was very knowledgeable about the software the team used. The skillset was more suitable for an IT role, rather than a marketing role. The root of her underperformance was that she was better suited for a different department in the company. 

On the surface, an employee may simply look like a slacker. They may appear to have an absence of dedication or motivation but in reality it may be a distraction or issue in their personal life. Without prying a manager needs to watch for signs of stress or addiction, and take the time to look deeper. Make employees aware of company benefits like an EAP program or short-term disability that can help them through difficult times. As a manager, you may need some training on how to recognize substance abuse. 

Observe their work performance

My approach with a new team or in a new position is to “seek first to understand.” Remember Steven Covey and the habits of highly effective people? Chances are the team and company existed for years before you, the new manager, came along. It’s important to honor that history and what they have done right. 

  • Observe their processes. What is going well? Is the process documented?  
  • Follow their routine. What are their habits? Are deadlines being met? Is work being completed in a timely manner?  
  • Evaluate the tools. How are they using technology? Do they fully understand all functionality available to them?
  • Assess their training needs. Do they have all the skills they need to perform at the desired level?

My team was responsible for answering the company’s 800# for lead inquiries. I found they rarely answered the phone live and let most calls go to voicemail. This was fundamentally against their primary responsibility!  

Identify the triggers for improved work performance

As you see areas of improvement, you can diplomatically begin to make changes. In my example, I ran the phone reports to show the amount of time the phones were set on “send all calls” to show the team the amount of time they made themselves unavailable to answer live calls. We talked about when that was appropriate and set new goals for the amount of time they should be available. 

The team had all of the training, tools, and resources they needed. The challenge was not tied to ability, it was tied to motivation. The previous managers were not monitoring activity so the team was skating by. They also felt underappreciated.

Set new expectations and goals

I spent time looking at the metrics from their work and how it supported the strategic goals of the company. Neither employee really understood their role in helping the company grow. Once they saw the potential value of answering a prospect call live and quickly assigning that lead to an account manager, it helped to give them some of the motivation that was lacking. In some cases, one phone call might be worth a million-dollar sale to the company that could be traced back to our phone line!

As a team, we talked about other metrics that would be used to evaluate their success. One was based on the phone records. The team was known for their lax schedules, late start times, and long smoking breaks. Running the phone reports and sharing them with the team gave all of us a new level of transparency. New expectations were set regarding office hours and breaks.  

New performance goals were also set for tracking the leads through the sales stages via the software technology. Part of their responsibility was reaching out to account managers by phone to have a conversation about the lead status. (Note, this predated tools like Salesforce.com that enabled that kind of tracking.) Each team member would take their turn making their phone unavailable for incoming calls while they reached out to the salespeople.  

Document coaching and work performance

Documenting your employee’s performance along with your coaching and feedback is important when providing formal feedback and performance reviews. Proper employee documentation is also critical in litigation and other proceedings such as unemployment hearings, arbitration, etc. It can show that proper steps and procedures were followed if serious actions need to be taken to fire an employee legally. 

Your documentation should always be truthful and accurate. Policies and standards should be applied consistently with all employees. Focus on facts and be specific. 

Training for supervisors and managers

These steps are not always intuitive for supervisors and managers and targeted training is needed. Working with a company like ej4 will give you access to a full library of supervision training videos with courses like:

  • Inheriting Underperformers
  • Legal Issues of Documenting Performance
  • Active Listening
  • Concerned Conversations
  • Opioid Addiction for Managers
  • And much more.

You can view all of these courses mentioned if you sign up for a free trial of Thinkzoom, our LMS.  


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