In my own experience, and from what I have gathered from clients, colleagues, students, and friends, dealing successfully with those who don’t quite measure up to the standards you expect is one of the greatest challenges a manager can face. 

One of the reasons for this is that, in a way, a poor performance shows that you have personally failed in some sense. Perhaps you hired or promoted this failing person, and you expected more; or your efforts to bring about change in the errant party have fallen short. Even if you inherited the employee, you have a natural tendency to question whether or not you have done enough of the right things to bring about better results. So self-recrimination is natural, but dispel it immediately. Such sentiments are never productive! 

Even if you are to blame—perhaps especially if you are—your responsibility is to come to a conclusion on what can be done about the problem and bring about appropriate change. Firing the errant party and rehiring and training someone new is expensive and should be seen as the last resort unless there is malfeasance on some level, as well as poor performance. 

First of all, try to assess—with help from other members of the employee’s team, where there are such—whether the problem is one of motivation. A person not motivated to do well is a rotten apple in any barrel and must be dealt with effectively. This does not necessarily mean termination, as first you must determine if there are mitigating factors inherent in the assignment itself or in the environment: conditions of the workplace, other employee interactions, insufficient training, or other similar things.

The personal circumstances an employee is experiencing can be hugely important in their motivation, naturally. Should you concern yourself with such personal issues? Yes, but only up to a point. Make a direct approach to the person in question. If you have been handling the appraisal process effectively, then there should be no surprises in this confrontation. Urge him to be honest about whatever is at play in his personal life and in the workplace. Ask if you are correct in your assessment that it is a motivational problem. If not, perhaps an alternative explanation will be forthcoming. 

Again, if your ongoing evaluation program has been handled correctly, the errant employee will know of your dissatisfaction. They will also have been given specific and detailed steps to take and will have objectives set for improvement. 

It should go without saying that compensation incompatibilities should have been dealt with as an ongoing basic aspect of your role as a manager, but if the issue of money comes out for the first time, openly discuss the matter, but make only those commitments and promises you feel are just and justified. Increases in pay should be given as rewards for doing well, never for stimulating an improvement! 

Also, be absolutely certain the pay levels of similar workers are not suddenly made disadvantageous by any change you make … especially if you end up giving a raise to an underperformer! Everyone will see that as a boneheaded move, and they will find out. 

Ask the underachieving employee if he feels fully competent in his assigned tasks. Ask if additional training would help in that regard. Offer help with outside courses (where appropriate) if that seems to be indicated, or more in-house training as may be justified. 

Set a definite timeframe for further discussions, and be specific about what criteria will be used in determining the next move by you. 

Ask the employee to agree on all next moves, including the possibility of termination.

Many large employers have in-house employee assistance programs to help with such potentially damaging personal problems as substance abuse, mental health issues, sleep deprivation, physical and emotional abuse at home, and other intensely personal matters. Make sure all your employees know of these benefits and, in the case of an underperformer, encourage them to seek help and guidance. 

For smaller organizations, there are programs available under the auspices of county or state health departments (some states) as well as through private agencies and other entities. Take the time to find out as much as you can about these services in any event (during times when they are not needed). In an increasingly complicated world, such things are becoming commonplace. Use all such services as you see fit, and with one objective in mind: the overall systemic welfare of your entire team, and the sustenance of a winning culture. A bad performer can do a great deal of harm to these ideals, so act on problems expeditiously but with reasoned compassion. 

Sometimes, the failure of one person to measure up can be dealt with effectively by making sure that goals are group set and group evaluated. Then there will be greater likelihood that a resolution will develop organically from within the group. 

You should build a file on each employee. While the dominant reason for such documentation is so that you can use it for an open dialog about progress made by each individual on your team, there is the more insidious reason: to prove that you have given a fair and reasonable set of objectives to an employee. Without such, consistently and fairly handled, your position is tenuous at best—especially when faced with a wrongful dismissal suit. 

This has become a litigious society, so be as thorough and as professional as you can, and make sure that there is not more focus (negative or positive) on any one employee over another. And do not use your files as clubs, or as the bases of threats—but this should be obvious. Remember the old saying: If you really have power, you seldom need to use it!

Note: This is an excerpt from Effective Management: 20 Keys to a Winning Culture (2013 ASTD Press). To purchase the book, visit store.astd.org.