Don't put your head in the sand if staff perform badly

Valerie Morton offers advice on what to do when a member of staff is underperforming

Valerie Morton
Valerie Morton

Q: I have inherited a poorly performing member of staff. What are my options?

A: There could be a number of issues here, but let me start by recounting a personal experience of this situation.

Some years ago I took over a well-established team. It did not take long to see that one long-standing member of staff was struggling to achieve his objectives. A conversation with my chief executive soon made it clear that this was an issue that dated back a number of years - but the challenging nature of the individual meant that no fewer than three of his previous managers had failed to get to grips with what was happening.

To be honest, they had chosen to accept and make the best of the situation rather than bite the bullet and put in place a performance management process. When I put such a process in motion, I was perceived as the bad guy.

I have to admit it was one of the greatest challenges I have ever faced as a manager. The 'head in the sand' approach of my predecessors had given the individual a false impression of his past performance, so he interpreted the problem as being me, the new manager. I followed the process by the book, including setting clear objectives, holding regular review meetings and setting up training and mentoring. Sadly, however, it was too late by that point and there followed a complex performance and grievance procedure.

If this is the scenario you face, you will need to be strong and bring the issue to a head. You owe it to your charity and, with luck, it might work. Just as importantly, however, you need to develop a culture in your organisation where action is taken today, not tomorrow. Although this will not be easy, it will be of long-term benefit to the charity.

Looking at other scenarios, if the poor performance has emerged since you took over the reins of the organisation, then you need to ask whether you have set appropriate objectives, given the skills base of the individual. You might have underestimated their skill level, and boredom and resentment could lie at the root of the problem. On the other hand, if you have overestimated their skill level, they might be floundering, but unwilling to admit that support is needed.

Alternatively, the timing of the problem might be purely coincidental and the person could be facing personal issues at home - in which case, you should follow the usual route of teasing out what is happening and being a supportive employer.

Finally, you should always remember that it is not uncommon for there to be a turnover of staff when a new manager joins an organisation. One shouldn't take it personally - rather, it should be seen as an opportunity to shape the team to fit your style and vision for the future.

Valerie Morton is a trainer, fundraiser and consultant

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