If you have management responsibilities, at one time or another you’ll likely encounter individuals whose job performance falls short of standards. Given the flattening of legal organizations and the non-hierarchical management style that prevails in most offices, dealing effectively with underperformers can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help them get back on track. The key to turning the situation around is to first spend time determining the root causes of sub-standard performance, if possible, before you try to identify appropriate ways to help employees improve.
Is it the Individual or the Overall Situation?
If your firm or legal department has experienced layoffs, it’s possible that some of your remaining staff members are so overworked, they can’t maintain high performance levels. Different people react to economic news in different ways, so even if your office has been able to avoid staff reductions, some workers may still feel unsettled. The majority of your staff may be able to take such situations in stride, but there may be one or two employees who are more susceptible to stress and therefore find it hard to work at their peak.
An apparent underperformer may actually be an overwhelmed performer who can return to former levels of excellence with a little extra assistance. If that’s the case, you may want to try reallocating duties or revising the scope of a given position. Talk to the individual to find out if there’s a more efficient way to rearrange tasks, tweak deadlines or adjust to-do lists. For example, perhaps other support staff could pitch in and help with a short-term but labor-intensive project.
If formerly stellar performers continually struggle, it may be time to bring in reinforcements. Temporary legal staff can help handle the stepped-up activity or cover gaps in staffing. By using legal project professionals, your office can maintain productivity while protecting core staff from undue pressure and potential burnout.
It’s Not Working – Now What?
If individual performance problems persist after you’ve attempted to relieve some of the workload, it’s time to step up your intervention. Meet with underperforming staff members to discuss the situation, taking a compassionate but straightforward approach. When critiquing performance, it’s essential to cite specific lapses rather than making vague, blanket judgments. For example, instead of saying, “Your work on the last assignment was unsatisfactory,” review what actually happened: “The files you put away for the Smith case were misclassified and other legal staff couldn’t find them.”
Give the employee a chance to respond. There may be some issues you are not aware of – pressures at home or friction within the office – that may help account for the poor performance.
Develop a Plan for Improvement
Working together with the team member, come up with a strategy for change. Besides specific steps for improvement, offer a bit of context by reminding the individual how his or her work affects the rest of the team’s productivity and success. Often, people don’t understand how important their efforts are to the bottom line. Most employees want to pull their own weight, do their best work and make a positive contribution to the team, and sometimes a reminder of how critical their work is suffices to boost performance.
In the process of intervening, you may gain insights into hidden factors contributing to performance shortcomings. For example, a legal secretary who has trouble meeting deadlines may turn out to have a time management problem, which you can help ameliorate by offering training opportunities or other tools.
Provide Role Models
Often, it’s easier for employees to improve if they can directly observe someone whose performance provides a good model. Try pairing underperforming staff members with experienced leaders who can provide appropriate guidance. These “performance mentors” should understand the issues at hand, enjoy helping others and have a personality that is a good fit for each individual mentee.
Managing and motivating underperformers isn’t easy, but with patience, a clear plan of action and a thoughtful strategy, you can turn the situation around. You may even think of ways to boost the performance of everyone on staff. For example, you might issue monthly or quarterly “Excellence Awards” to employees who meet specific benchmarks and standards. Or you could set up a “Manager’s Challenge” that encourages staff members to strive for higher levels of productivity. Regardless of the specific strategies you choose, remember to publicly recognize and reward underperformers – and all employees – when they begin moving toward the top of the charts.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.