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I have an employee that I think has been underperforming the last few months. I don't have a "smoking gun" to prove that he is underperforming, however I do have some circumstantial evidence and a gut feeling.

Programmer performance is very difficult to quantify and compare, however the reasons I felt that he is under performing are

  1. Time record on our bug tracking tool
  2. Relatively frequent office absence
  3. Unable to finish all of the tasks assigned to him.

So I sat down with him one to one to have a straight talk with him to try and find out if my perception was right or wrong. I thought by approaching him about it in a non-condemning manner, he could correct me if I was mistaken and there'd be no hard feelings.

I first affirmed his talent and his work in the past, then I asked him whether he was putting in his best effort for the past few months. I carefully worded my question so as to remove any emotional or blame elements in it. I then outlined the reason for my feeling (as mentioned here)

He was indignant as I talked, and felt that this was a completely unfair feeling. I then replied that this was just my feeling and I didn't know whether my feeling was right or not. But rather than try and correct me or discuss the subject, he got offended and ended the discussion immediately, stating that he "would try to do more" in a very cold tone.

I was taken aback by this reaction.

Should I do something to try and repair my relationship with this employee? If so, what? If not, why?

I am still not certain if I am right or not about his performance. It's possible I misjudged him, or it's possible I'm right and he won't admit it. But I would like to try and repair our relationship either way.

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Did you ask this person if everything was OK in their lives? If they have any issues at work they would like to discuss? Or did you go straight into the performance issue without trying to find out if there are some specific reasons for it? –  Oded Nov 27 '12 at 9:46
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That's not prying. There may very well be issues this individual is facing - having someone understanding that will listen to him is better than hearing that now they have another problem. –  Oded Nov 27 '12 at 10:45
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You really should have asked the moderators to move the question from Programmers to here, along with the answers, rather than starting over with a new question. –  pdr Nov 27 '12 at 12:40
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IMHO, a team lead whose only insight into the performance of an employee is via bug-tracking stats and attendance is dangerously out of touch with his team members. I think you should try to gain a better understanding of what is going on, how the team works, the quality of their work and their work problems. This won't be resolved with one conversation. It means opening up a regular dialog with the team, perhaps even regular 1:1 as some of the articles linked here suggest. –  Angelo Nov 27 '12 at 14:12
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Hi @ATeamLead I've edited your question to try and turn it into something more answerable by the community, as I think it is a decent question. I've voted to reopen it, however it needs more reopen votes from the community to get reopened. If I've changed your question too much, feel free to edit it or rollback my edits. –  Rachel Nov 28 '12 at 14:23

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I like GuyM's perspective but wanted to chime in that it's important not to presume any particular reason for the drop in performance. GuyM's got a good point that this stuff can often be part of a work/life/health issue that may need sensitive treament, but I wanted to point out that until the employee tells you what's up, you can't presume anything.

I think you did the basically correct thing. You highlighted the change in behavior as best you could, you tried to avoid emotion and blame, you asked for an improvement. How he takes it is at least as much about his perception as your delivery.

The one thing that raises a small flag to me is:

He was indignant as I talked. He felt that this was a completely unfair feeling. I then replied that this was just my feeling and I didn't know whether my feeling was right or not. But he looked offended and ended the discussion immediately

Saying it's "just your feeling" is a way of backpedaling. It isn't "just your feeling" - you have some sample data - his bug trackign tool usage and frequent absenses are giving you cause for concern. That's not a feeling, that's a data point. By taking on any of the blame here, you weaken the stance.

You can certainly say "this is what I'm seeing, is my perception correct?" - in which case you may have an in depth discussion on why he thinks you're wrong. But that puts you both back in the realm of observed behavior and facts.

Things to do next:

  • Keep on measuring and be fair. You're right that there are no perfect answers in the realm of job performance, but it sounds like you have good grounds for comparison. It's worth it to compare, though - how does this guy stack up on these metrics compared to other folks on the team. You don't want to be in a situation where you are seen as picking on a particular person, when everyone's performance is actually similar. Be sure that when you make a comparison, it makes sense.

  • Keep on giving feedback - more is better than less. The worst thing you can do is let the guy be blindsided in 6 months or a year when it comes time for a performance review. If you see a change in behavior in the next month - say so. If you don't - say so. The time goes by, the more obvious it will be whether this person is underperforming or just had a rough couple of months. Just don't let it slide.

  • Let him take it however he takes it. Most people don't love criticism. Many people react coldly and angrily, especially at first - give him time to ponder it, if he doesn't raise the issue in a week or more, you raise it. Realize he has a right to feel however he feels, but it doesn't invalidate your perspective. Many people don't come around immediately, they need time to process and consider.

  • Apologies - if he felt something you said was unprofessional, or intentionally mean, you can feel free to apologize for saying something badly. But it doesn't change the fact that you put some thought into it before you gave the criticism and from your perspective, you're not wrong. Don't apologize for caring about the performance of your team members. That's what a manager is supposed to do.

  • Keep a log - of the dates you notice problems and the days you speak to him about it. Whether its in the feedback you give to the employee, or information you have to give later as a big picture perspective - tracking details is a good idea. It's always easy to gloss over bad stuff. It doesn't have to mean that you are keeping a secret diary of hate - it's a matter of having clear enough information that you can have more than a vague conversation about the issues you are seeing.

Outcomes:

Sooner or later, there's only a few paths this will take. In the long run...

  • he'll take the feedack to heart and performance will get better

  • you'll have to escalate - if you're not the direct reporting manager, someone is, and sooner or later you'll need to take the action of either reporting the problems upward, or giving the person a negative performance review. How your company works through the review/lack of raise/termination process is unique to the company, but in general, it moves from giving informal feedback like you've just given to being more formal and abrupt about it.

There's a very rare possibility that in the long run, you'll realize that you were wrong, and this wasn't the big deal you thought it was. I'll say from my experience that this is rare - usually if a manager notices and is bothered enough by the problems to talk to the employee, then it really IS an issue. And your doubts are probably coming from having just had a very unpleasant coversation that you wish didn't to happen. But if you are wrong, comparing the performance of this guy to other employees will help you figure that out - either the data is there or it isn't.

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@ATeamLead Unfortunately, you know your situation best so that's a decision you'll have to make on your own. We're not sure the exact words said, the exact state of affairs between you two, the culture of your workplace, and so forth. We can only offer you some solutions about what you could do next based on what you've shared with us. –  Rachel Nov 29 '12 at 13:26
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@ATeamLead - GuyM is making some assertions that I am not - that your team member is introverted, and that there's been a distinct change in his recent performance. I wasn't so sure and I could see a way of writing a more generalized answer that didn't require those assumptions. Also - while "is everything is OK?" is a fine question to ask anyone at any time, in American corporate culture you want to tread lightly and with great care in discussions that get into health/family areas. Asking "what's the problem" is always OK. Leaping to conclusions can be dangerous. –  bethlakshmi Nov 29 '12 at 14:10

I think that managing staff performance - especially when it doesn't meet your expectations - is one of the more difficult parts of line management.

If I am reading the two posts correctly, then it seems that this lack of focus that your direct report has is both recent ("these few months") - and seems to be coincident with a series of sick/personal leave events. In addition, the overall impression I get of the staff member is of someone who is quite introverted in general.

In a number of cases where I had staff go "off the boil" in a similar fashion - especially introverted staff - it has been because of significant non-work issues causing considerable amount of stress.

In one case in particular when I acted much as you have done (and with similar responses) the staff member collapsed a few days later as a result of a serious illness, and was subsequently hospitalised for a number of months with a combination of stomach ulcers and tumours; while I had done nothing to hasten the issue, and he hadn't opened up to me, it was still not my finest hour as a line manager.

So - in situations like this, I now tend to start off by simply asking the employee if everything is okay, in an open ended way, and then wait to see what response I get.

In this case I would suggest apologising, and informing the employee that to you, his recent performance seemed out of character, and that you are both concerned and worried that something is not right. I'd do this in private, and make sure that your phone is off and you are prepared to be there for a while.

You may at this stage find out what is troubling the individual, and while their personal life is none of your business, at the point where it starts to effect the workplace, you need to take some action.

While to some extent I am leaping to conclusion based on my experiences here, starting off by ruling out stress, illness or other personal problems as the root cause is, I'd suggest, a wise course of action.

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The approach you have taken is not how I now try and manage these situations. In my experience when a previously good empolyee starts to go downhill, there's usually some underlying issue to be addressed in some way. Simply telling them to "work harder" may not produce the results you are after, and, if they are stressed about another matter, will just compound that stress. I'd also add that negative feedback ("you are not performing") is usually a lot less effective than taking a supportive position of your staff ("what can I do to help you reach your targets") –  GuyM Nov 28 '12 at 3:16

When it comes to software developers there's two main reasons why they might underperform compared to their peers: they are actually not good enough or they are not trying enough.

Depending on which one of the two you are facing, you have to decide what you want to do with them.

Not Good Enough

If they are not good enough you can institute processes where there is more coaching, code-reviews, pair programming, etc. That being said the cold hard truth is that some developers, despite being great guys/gals, will NEVER be good enough no matter what you do with them. I firmly believe that a lot can be taught, but not everything and not to everyone. It's not that people like that are in the wrong business, rather they are in the wrong role. I've seen them become great scrum masters and program managers. I've also seen them simply get let go.

Not Trying Hard Enough

If the developer in question is underperforming because they are not trying enough, in my experience this happens for one of three reasons.

The Work They Do Is Boring

You can try giving them harder tasks, but often you can't fix this one easily. If you are dealing with a real hacker type but your business is a typical CRUD web-app where their tasks are "Add button X to list Y" then they will zone out. I've seen guys code open source projects on their own time all night long then come in spent and sleepy to work in the morning. To fix it, you want to ask them what it is that they want to work on, see if they are excited about anything else that is going on in the company.

They're Not Making Enough Money

Say you met up with your buds for a beer on a Friday night, and you all started talking shop. Imagine you learned that you are making way less than everyone at the table. How excited are you going to be about fixing bugs on Monday? A lot of people fall into this category but for one reason or another never actually ask for a raise - they just carry on being disgruntled and upset. Perhaps they are actively looking for a job and have already 'checked out'. If you know for a fact that you are underpaying your developers a raise might be the only way to get them to care.

Other Life Problems

Children, personal relationships, health, drug addictions, whatever. They're never going to tell you unless they want to, and even then they have to trust you. That being said you can only solve these problems if they have, in fact, confided in you. Examples would be giving them a more flexible schedule for children, or whatever space they need to solve their personal problems as a tradeoff for working more hours when they can. If it works out they will be forever grateful to you. IMHO solving these kinds of problems is what distinguishes OK managers from good ones, and why I believe that good managers have to be collegues and peers of their teams rather than some top-down authoritative figure.

In conclusion, good luck. Bear in mind that you should do everything you can to facilitate a good working environment and maximum productivity from your team, but there is a limit to what you can do. Any work relationship is a two-way street, and if the other pesons closes the door on you then it might just be over.

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As a 'good' manager (if that's what you choose to be), your first and foremost concern is the well-being of your employees that you manage. First thing I would consider based on looking at 'bug-tracking records' and 'attendance', persons who all of a sudden drop off in performance and stop showing up to work have either personal problems affecting them or something at work has damaged their drive and motivation to perform. (That problem MAY even be YOU).

Your first mistake was attacking him for his lack of performance.

Every person has an image of themselves in their mind on how good they are at what they do. What you did was attacked that image. He responded by being cold to you, and he probably will be unless you apologize and try to get the conversation on the track it was supposed to be on.

Logically, your approach is sound, but life isn't all logic. It is highly emotional and you have to understand how your employees feel more than studying their output. You connect with the feelings of your employees, and they feel good about coming to work and working for YOU, their output will increase.

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