Dealing Effectively with a Problem Employee

April 16, 2014

toxic employee

Not every employee you manage is going to be successful on the job. Someone who is performing poorly may require additional training, a transfer to another area where they can do well, or ultimately, dismissal when looking at a problem employee.

The Initial Meeting

When you have an underperforming problem employee:

  1. Meet with him to discuss his current level of performance, the required level of performance, and how he can get there.
  2. In that meeting, assess whether he desires to improve or whether he finds his current performance acceptable.

This is the stage in the process you want to move toward one of two outcomes:

  1. The most desirable is to work with him to bring his performance up to speed.
  2. The other possible outcome is to ultimately dismiss the employee.

Communication is Vital

The key to both of these outcomes is communication. It’s time to be direct. Make it abundantly clear to the employee that his job is at risk. Just as important, make it clear that you want to see him be successful and will do all you can to assist him if he is committed to that success.

Put it in Writing

Make sure goals and agreed actions are in writing. You don’t need anything fancy. A single page is sufficient. Once you and the employee have agreed to the steps he is going to take to improve his performance, put them in writing along with the date by which the action will be completed.

You need to be clear and unambiguous: “Your average daily errors are five. We need to cut that down to three by the end of the month.”

These written goals need to be specific, include quantifiable levels of performance and the date by which they will be achieved.

Your precise specifications serve a dual purpose. If the problem employee meets the goal, you may be on the way to solving the problem and retaining the employee. Failing that, you’re ready to start the termination process.

Provide an Opportunity for Improvement

Agreed-upon actions may include things like a few additional days of training, assignment of a mentor, or a full day for him to observe someone in a similar role who is particularly effective.

Before the conversation is over, do three more things:

  • Have the employee sign a copy of the sheet for him to take with him.
  • Agree to the exact time and date the two of you will again meet to discuss his progress.
  • Let him know that you are open to hearing back from him sooner if it will assist him.

The Second Meeting  

Your next meeting with the employee needs to be fairly soon. More than a month is too long. At that meeting, the actions and goal list needs to be updated and signed by the employee. Once again, the date and time of your next meeting needs to be established.

  • If he is not improving, the time until the next meeting needs to be shortened.
  • If he is showing signs of progress, it may be appropriate to allow a bit more time until you meet again.

This process will continue until the employee is performing up to standards or is dismissed.

Your Decision Will Become Clear  

As this process proceeds, one of two things will happen. Either the underperforming problem employee performance will improve to a reasonable level or it will not. This will make it clear to you and likely the employee that he is not suited for his current position. The time you have spent on this process is worthwhile because you now know quite clearly that you need to remove him from the position. It also may have the effect of making it clear to the employee that he is not suited for his current role.


In addition, your efforts have made clear to the other members of your team that you are committed to everyone on the team being successful, if possible.

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About The Author

JIM McCORMICK is the former Chief Operating Officer of the fifth largest architectural firm in the United States. A full time speaker and organizational consultant, he works with organizations to help them identify and incentivize their optimum risk posture. More information is available at:

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