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Why Underperformers Survive

The chronic underperformer – we have all seen them, worked with them and been frustrated by them. In most organizations everyone knows who “they” are. So how on earth do they continue to survive? You see and read about far too many cases of these types of employees that exist within organizations. They don’t really seem to do anything (i.e. work), or they aren’t competent enough to do the work that is expected of them, yet they somehow continue to survive at companies for two, three, ten even twenty+ years! How the heck can this be? The scary thing is that these types of employees exist everywhere! They are survivors! They have mastered the art of defer, deflect, dodge, duck and are able to use their power of organizational invisibility.

Survive_LogoIn order to address this issue in your workplace, you must first understand how these creatures survive. I am not going to go into a whole performance management system rant because we all know that if you don’t have an effective system, than that is where a lot of your problems lie anyway. What I am going to do is identify some of the critical mistakes that companies and managers make that allow chronic underperformers to simply survive. If you can eliminate these mistakes, you can eliminate the underperformer.

Mistake #1: Failure to communicate. It its simplest form, this is a classic management mistake whereby the manager doesn’t take the time to meet with the employee, identify any performance gaps and what success looks like. If there are no discussions, than there is no accountability. The underperformer continues to muddle along, oblivious to any of their gaps and before you know it, they have been with the organization for 10 years!

Mistake #2: Spreading the work around. You see it all the time – a team or dept. has a chronic underperformer on it that is impacting team success. So what does the manager do? They chunk out the underperformers’ responsibilities and assign them to others so as to ensure the work gets done. (And of course the manager does not hold the underperformer accountable).

Mistake #3: Failure to identify their piece of the pie. Essentially this is the person whose work is not clearly defined and as such they are always part of a project but their individual contribution is never measured. Thus, if the project is successful, the underperformer thinks they are successful. If the project fails, than it is the “fault” of the group not the underperformer.

Mistake #4: Lack of documentation. This often occurs in cases where the underperformer has a consistent flow of smaller performance issues. That is, nothing terribly egregious but they display a consistent pattern of small(er) performance shortcomings. The manager, due to time constraints, pulls the underperformer aside for quick chats to address the small issues as they occur, but doesn’t document anything. The underperformer continues to not meet expectations and almost certainly becomes a bigger performance issue. Than you have a frustrated manager who wants to get rid of the underperformer but some pesky HR Manager type tells them that they need to have documentation before you can terminate!

Mistake #5: Transferring the problem. This is my favourite. The underperformer either voluntarily requests to move into a different area (thus getting a free pass or an organizational reset if you will), applies for and gets a new role based on an internal posting or their manager “aids” them in moving into a different area to “try something new.” Then, a new manager, who may be unaware of the underperformer’s issues, inherits the problem and the cycle begins again. In the same vein, I have also seen organizations that have a chronic underperformer that has become an organizational detriment in their role to the extent that their immediate removal (but you can’t terminate due to the previous mistakes identified above) is deemed to be the only solution. So, some other lucky department then gets to have this person and re-live the sins of the past.

Mistake #6: Rewarding the underperformer. Many companies have merit pay systems but when it comes to underperformers they don’t follow them. Simply put, managers don’t have the heart to tell an employee they didn’t earn a pay raise so they provide them a nominal % amount regardless of the performance level. The employee then feels they met performance expectations and busily goes on their way for another year.

These are but a sampling of some mistakes managers and organizations make in dealing with chronic underperformers. Make sure you identify in your companies if these are occurring so you can make a course correction. If you don’t, before long you will have a long term employee who hasn’t performed for the past two + decades….than I will wish you good luck in addressing that issue.

What about you? What other mistakes have you seen when dealing with chronic underperformers? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


4 Responses

  1. Right on the money Scott. I have seen the “under performer” slide under the radar for far too long!

  2. Great post Scott. This problem is also perpetuated by unions in some cases.

  3. Thanks Paul – yes, the whole union impact on this is another dynamic altogether that is for sure.

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