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This image made me think of one of the biggest workplace problems we deal with – employers carrying under-performing employees through working life.

Last week the image of a weasel taking a ride on a woodpecker’s back became an internet sensation. The photograph was taken by amateur photographer Martin Le-May from Essex. Wildlife experts believe the weasel was ready to go in for the kill, but ended up hitching a free ride.

The image resonated with us when we saw it and made us think of one of the biggest workplace problems we deal with – employers carrying under-performing employees through working life.

Poor performance

This is a common HR problem, but many employers put their head in the sand, finding it easier to ignore problems of poor performance than deal with it. Sometimes they don’t even realise they have a poor performance problem. The matter usually comes to us when it has gone beyond little mistakes and has ended up as something much more. The longer you leave it the harder it is to sort out and there is the risk that the employee will complain of bullying (it’s not) because you start to correct him. And of course commonly instead of gritting his teeth and trying to get it right, employees often go off sick with stress. I understand that employees genuinely do find such situations stressful and empathise (to a point), but I can’t see that it really solves anything long term. Under-performance is under-performance and has to be addressed.

Poor performance usually starts out in a small way. It may be small mistakes, taking longer to complete tasks, customer or colleague complaints or not meeting budgets. We often describe such behaviour as having a small stone in your shoe. It’s a bit annoying but you can carry on walking without needing to get rid of the stone. But it niggles and nags and makes things that much more difficult. If the matter is not dealt with it has all sorts of consequences (none of them good); it can lead to performance deteriorating further, the best performing colleagues leave because they’re fed up with carrying the passenger, you end up doing or correcting the work and the organisation bleeds money. Do you still think limping on with the stone in the shoe is a good option?

Being proactive

It’s fairly straightforward to deal with these things. Nip the problem in the bud as soon as you spot the signs. An informal conversation is often all it takes to do the trick. Once an employee knows his performance is on the radar he will often buck up his ideas. Agree soft targets and give time to improve. Ask him how you can help him to achieve the expected standards. If training is needed provide it and check carefully to ensure the employee has grasped the concepts. Be clear about what your expectations are and explain the consequences of failure to meet and maintain standards. You can only do so much so put the ball in his court and make it clear that you expect him to make the effort. Keep a note of your conversation and book in a date to have a follow up conversation.

Hopefully the informal conversation is all that’s needed but if the employee has not achieved the required levels of performance over a period of time, continue to explore matters formally. The efforts to help the employee will continue in parallel with any formal action, and this may include discussion about reduction in level of role or a change of role altogether. Sometimes people are over-promoted or in the wrong job.

Business performance and employee morale can both be impacted by a single employee with poor performance. It all has a knock on effect. Nip problems in the bud when they first come to light. Otherwise you may find yourself like the woodpecker; carrying someone around whilst you do the work.