The Low-Performer Paradox

Experts weigh in on how much time and effort HR should spend on coaching programs aimed at helping underperforming employees improve. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017
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Cut the cord or keep on trying?

This is the question organizations often face as they consider what to do with a low-performing employee. It's never easy to determine when the answer is to give an underwhelming worker one more shot, or to spend valuable time and money on finding someone else for the job. Either path could lead to a dead end, of course.

Developing performance-improvement plans for these employees has long been a popular approach. In some cases, the company might even assign a coach or mentor to a low performer to provide a model for success.

Coaching programs are not a novel concept, but when Amazon launches one for underperforming employees, it's news. The online retail giant's January rollout of Pivot -- a training program that offers struggling employees support and direction in the form of in-house career ambassadors -- didn't go unnoticed. At the time, some lauded Amazon's apparent effort to give subpar workers a boost, while others contended that energy would be better spent on further developing those who have already shown their worth to the organization.

More recently, Human Resource Executive® asked a pair of experts to offer opinions on how much time and effort should be devoted to lifting low performers versus spurring proven contributors to even greater heights. 

Sending a Powerful Message

Daniel Stewart sees providing coaches charged with helping low performers benefitting employers and employees alike, on a few fronts.

"Part of the reason that Amazon or any company might adopt this type of program for low performers is to send a message," says Stewart, president of Stewart Leadership, a Portland, Ore.-headquartered talent management and leadership development consultancy. "And I have to admit, my gut reaction is that the message they want to send is not necessarily geared toward the employees in the program. They might want to let 'the street,' shareholders, know that they value the people who work for them."

That said, Stewart believes the introduction of such a program should also send a powerful sign to employees being asked to take part in it. (Amazon offers employees the option to participate in Pivot, quit with severance or appeal their supervisor's decision to put them in the program.)

"The organization is saying, 'We hired you, therefore we believe you have something to offer,' " says Stewart. "That's a meaningful thing to say, because, if Amazon or anyone else wants to hire someone, they want that person to succeed. So why not invest, as appropriate, in making sure they're leveraging that person's ability and potential in the right way?"

Of course, Stewart says, all employees are expected to perform. And, by instituting this type of program, "you're elevating everyone's performance -- either purposely or as an unintended consequence," he points out.

As a companion coaching initiative of sorts, "a low-performer program can send a message that development and performance is a priority, and all levels need to continually up their games," Stewart says.

The failure to also offer similar opportunities for those meeting or exceeding expectation, however, "can cause resentment among the more successful [employees], and will not elevate overall organizational performance," he adds.

Stewart notes that achieving timely results with a low-performer coaching program -- whether it's improved performance, reassignment or separation -- is also crucial to its success.

"If this quick turnaround is executed with discipline and timeliness, then higher-performing employees [in the program] will become more empowered to seek greater level of performance," he says. "The bottom line is: Low performers need to be paid enough attention to [encourage improved] performance, but not at the expense of high performers who add far more value, proportionally, than low performers."

Investing in Known Entities

Levi Segal, a Stamford, Conn.-based partner at Aon Hewitt, would rather see those higher-performing, more productive employees remain the focal point of coaching and development efforts.

To illustrate his point, Segal recalls a recent conversation he had with the CEO of a financial-services firm.

In the course of this chat, "it struck me that all of his questions and concerns were about dealing with lower performers," he says. "[I thought], 'Where's the focus on the rest of the firm's employees?' By ignoring them, this CEO was ironically displaying poor 'human capital investment.' We're likely to get more out of constructive conversations with top performers. It's a basic case of investment versus reward."

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HR leaders, says Segal, are often seen as "the voice of the employee" in many organizations, which can create a bit of an identity crisis for the function when confronted with what to do about low performers. While employee relations are certainly important, he explains, the HR function's dual roles of employee advocate and business partner can sometimes be in conflict.

"But there are going to be times when one has to win out," he says, noting that identifying, engaging and rewarding high performers should take precedence over acting as a "defense attorney" for lower-performing employees.

"This doesn't mean that [HR should] ignore the needs of solid performers," adds Segal. "Organizations need them to thrive. But we need to address each population differently. This 'elitist' position might make some HR leaders uncomfortable -- that's the problem."

Discomfort aside, however, the business case for concentrating coaching programs on higher-tier employees is "actually pretty simple," he says.

"Research continues to show, and business leaders instinctively know, that top performers provide exponentially greater economic value," says Segal, adding that employers and HR departments have a limited amount of resources -- be it time, attention or money -- to spend on development and "we need to prioritize."

Combine those factors, and "it's basic logic that organizations should spend the majority of their resources on finding, engaging and retaining top talent. This doesn't mean that we should ignore the rest of our employees. It just means that that's where we need to invest."

Coaches, he says, "cost time and money. Wouldn't the organization be better served by giving coaches to high performers, employees with high potential or solid contributors on the cusp of high performance?

"Logic dictates that organizations allocate resources in a way that reflects the dramatic difference in value produced by different employees," continues Segal. "Doing so would improve the attraction and retention of top performers."


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