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The Art of Management: How to approach low-productivity employees

Each month, we speak to an industry expert from a different discipline of business, providing valuable insight to help your business grow and how to progress through the ranks of large organisations.

This month, we’re talking to Sue Andrews, HR Director at KIS Finance. With 25 years’ experience gained across a range of sectors, Sue has demonstrable expertise about the essential things that allow for business success, and the importance of how a company’s HR must be fully integrated into its business plan, with an impressive CV to prove it.

How to approach low productivity employees

If an employee has a negative, ‘can’t do’ attitude, is this an issue with performance or misconduct? How would the problem be addressed?

It’s easy to assume that the underlying reason is simply misconduct. In other words, they can’t be bothered to put in the required effort to get the job done. However, before starting with disciplinary procedures to address their attitude, it’s important to check that the cause of the problem isn’t a lack of understanding of what’s expected of them, or a gap in their skills that’s preventing them from performing effectively.

Before taking any action, sit down with the employee and discuss your concerns, clearly setting out the impact that their negative attitude is having. They may not be aware of how their attitude is affecting their own productivity. Once you understand what’s causing the issue, you’ll be able to take the right decisions to address the problem, whether that’s disciplinary action or additional training and supervision.

When discussing the issue directly with the employee, are there any words or language that should be avoided?

Jumping straight in and criticising their performance will put the employee on the defensive, which will make the meeting far more challenging and less likely to end well.

how to approach low productivity employees

Be clear in what you say, as avoiding the issue or being overly positive will leave the employee confused as to what the meeting was actually about. It’s essential that you plan how you will approach the issue and use specific examples to illustrate your concerns.

Avoid using emotionally-charged words, instead use clear and factual terms to describe the impact that their attitude is having on both their own performance and potentially on colleagues as well. Above all, keep it professional and avoid using personal comments which will detract from the points you are trying to get across.

If you have an employee whose performance improves for a month or so, but then falls back to their old ways, what can you do to maintain that initial productivity?

The key to getting employees to maintain improvement is to ensure that you undertake regular meetings with them, to remind them of the standards you expect. Use these sessions to set the employee targets and monitor their progress towards them.

If an employee knows that you will be regularly checking in with them and monitoring their progress, they are more likely to try to maintain their performance. You also need to be clear with them that if they do allow their productivity to fall back to an unacceptable level you may have to resort to disciplinary action.

how to approach low productivity employees

How can you ensure productivity remains part of the company’s culture?

The old saying ‘what gets measured gets done’ is very true, meaning that by setting the right targets and measuring the results you’ll focus everyone’s efforts on the right things.  So, by making sure that productivity targets are embedded at each level of the organisation and regularly measuring the results, you’ll keep productivity at the top of the agenda and an essential element of the company’s culture.

How you report the data also makes a difference. By sharing data and trends with the whole workforce, you’ll keep everyone engaged and focused on the key measures and a bit of competition between departments can be a healthy way to keep teams motivated and productive.

How important is it that concerns are addressed as soon as possible?

Matters don’t usually improve on their own and the longer the issue goes unresolved the more difficult it can be to fix.

If the situation is caused by an employee’s attitude, then by not tackling the problem you are sending a message that their behaviour is acceptable. Similarly, if the root of the problem is that they need further training, the sooner this is actioned the sooner their performance will improve.

how to approach low productivity employees

Loss of productivity is not only damaging financially to an organisation but will eventually affect staff morale; potentially affecting productivity even further.

A manager has claimed their team is underperforming but has no real evidence. What should I be asking them for?

This can be challenging as you need to be clear on what the problem is before you can find the right solution.

The starting point is to ask the manager to break down the various tasks that the team undertakes to try to identify if there are particular areas where productivity is down. Are there some functions that the team are prioritising and others that they prefer to leave until last? It could be that they are less confident in handling certain tasks so try to avoid them.

If the manager suspects that the team’s performance is being hindered by certain individuals, then they need to carefully monitor their work and output over a few weeks.  This will enable the manager to gather any evidence required to compare the employee’s productivity against their colleagues and take any appropriate action.

how to approach low productivity employees

What is a reasonable period of time for an employee to improve their performance or productivity?

Problems with performance or productivity can’t always be fixed overnight but it’s reasonable to expect to see improvement in a short period of time. Of course, it depends on the underlying causes. If an employee needs further training to fix a skills gap, then this will need to be arranged and they will need time to learn and embed their new skills.

However, if the issue is one of attitude then it’s quite acceptable to expect to see an immediate improvement in their conduct once the issue has been addressed with them. If the problem has gone unchecked for some time and the attitude is well embedded, then it may take longer for them to reach the standards you expect of them. However, giving staff a month to improve or face further action is a fair and reasonable target.

We’d like to thank Sue for taking the time to contribute to this article.

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