Q: I have a challenge with an underperforming employee. He is being given a last chance; how do I give him assignments to see if he can step up while still maintaining my team’s quality of work?

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Q: I have a challenge with an underperforming employee. He is being given a last chance; how do I give him assignments to see if he can step up while still maintaining my team’s quality of work?

A: Clear expectations and feedback are essential, along with good contingency planning.

The inner game

Prepare to do some soul searching as you make a plan. Settle in, focusing on your breathing to become calm and centered. Now, explore the question of what you’d like to have happen. Are you pulling for him to succeed, or are you going through the motions and are ready for him to move on? If it’s the latter, make sure that you’re putting internal and external mechanisms in place to ensure that you’re being fair to him.

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Articulate specifically the ways he is falling short. Technical work skills and interpersonal skills all may be factors, and all need to be in place for him to succeed at his job. If your company’s performance-assessment format lends itself to analysis, use it to determine the key items for attention. Otherwise, create a grid that outlines competencies and characteristics that are essential to the job. Then prioritize the list — must haves vs. nice to haves.

Gather current performance information from people who are affected by his work, and determine whether there is concern about working with him as you try to get him up to speed. This will help you decide which assignments might be best for him and determine the backup resources you’ll need to have in place.

Be sure that you’re up to speed with expectations from your boss and your human resources department, and find the resources internally that can help you.

The outer game

Using your prioritized list, meet with the employee to discuss your expectations. Set some specific targets using clearly defined behaviors that you expect, and timelines for demonstrating the behaviors. Document this carefully and be sure that you both have a copy.

Err on the side of communication. Set up frequent meetings to let him know how he is doing on the areas of concern. Also, whenever possible, provide feedback in the moment. For example, if responsiveness is an issue, if someone comes to you because he has not gotten back to them, share that right away.

You also need to manage risk in case he does not succeed in the assigned tasks. For example, if he is supposed to provide a document for a meeting, set up time in advance to make sure that he’s on track, and also have another person identified who has enough experience to readily complete the task if he has fallen short.

If it’s still not working out, determine whether there’s a more junior role or a position on a different team that would be a better fit. Otherwise, it’ll be your responsibility — a difficult one — to make the decision to let him go. Again, have your boss and HR department in the loop as you make that call.

The last word

Managing underperformance is challenging; however, the success of your team depends on your leadership courage.

Submit questions to Liz Reyer at liz@deliverchange.com.