Managing Unproductive Employees


The unproductive employee....every manager's nightmare. That single employee can cause a morale downturn for your team or department and if not handled correctly and swiftly, could create losses for the company.


There could be many reasons why someone is not motivated to at least meet the bare minimum of their job requirements on a daily basis. The usual go-to assumption is that they are lazy or that they just don't care. But there could also be other reasons like issues at home, with their health or maybe they are bored to tears.


I don't know about you, but if I'm bored...watch out...I might not be lazy...but I sure can be a pain in the butt. (so I'm told)


So how do you approach an employee who is having productivity issues?


Get to the heart of the matter


First, you need to have a conversation to understand the real issue. Have an open, honest, and positive conversation. What does that mean? It means you let them know that you have noticed that they are struggling to complete their work or be productive and that you want to support him/her in getting back on track. It's also the right time to let them know if their behavior is having an impact on the rest of the team. Ask them to explain so you can better understand. Then, be quiet and let them talk while you listen (really listen).


This isn't time to make accusations. You must come from a place of positive intent and that this is a problem they want help with or that they want to correct. Chances are they have no idea the effect it's having on the others. Also, if you push in and make accusations, like they are lazy, and find out they are having financial issues at home that are stressing them...that's really hard to recover from and you can bet others on the team will find out.


Make a plan

Now that you have an understanding of the situation, you can make a plan to get them back into the productivity mindset. No matter the situation, you should be able to set goals as well as expectations in a way that is motivating for them and where you see things progressing for your department.

  • If there are personal issues they are working through, find ways that you can support them. Whether it's time away, reduced time, or a flexible work schedule or it could just be they need the confidence that if they have a low day you will be there to pick them up. You would be amazed at how people perform when they feel their manager is in their corner.

  • If they are bored, work through what they need to be challenged. This might mean you need to put them on a path of stretching their experience or provide training. Keep in mind if you are stretching their experience, you can't become an absentee manager. That employee is your investment, so support them and make sure they are managing with the new challenges.

  • If you get down to it and find out they just don't care or are lazy, well that means you might have to move into a more formal process. HOWEVER, I want to caution you against letting them go immediately. You should still be operating from the mindset that you want the best outcome for all involved. So, maybe start with small goals and expectations that you expressly dictate as part of that formal process. Then make sure you are paying attention - in a positive way.

Follow through, follow up


What's the point in a plan if you aren't making sure outcomes are reached? The goal is to increase productivity, so stay on top of their progress.

  • Meet with them regularly. This shows that you are not only paying attention but are invested in their success

  • Provide consistent and fair feedback. They need to hear what they are doing well and where they need to make adjustments. You never know if you are going to find what makes this person tick to where they really step up their game and become your "go-to" guy.

  • If it doesn't work out, then you have been doing all the right things with regards to support and feedback to where you have all the information you need to usher them on their way.

There's always a way to work with an unproductive employee, but the operative word is "work". You can't ignore them or the problem or try to motivate them with negative tactics. Manage it quickly and head-on as you will want to ensure that you can get this person turned around before it starts to affect the rest of the team.


If you struggle with conflict, I have a course that teaches you the skills and strategies to handle Difficult Conversations in a way that is outcome-focused and builds trust with your team and peers. Contact us to see how we can help.

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