Marginal performers are not candidates for fire. They are not disruptive and the quality of their work is not unacceptable. They are just not doing as much as they could. They come into work, do what is necessary, and bide their time until the workday is over. The Gallup Organization calls these employees “not engaged,” and Gallup's research shows that about 55 percent of the U.S. workforce falls into this category.
Marginal performance has certain recognizable hallmarks. One is a lack of initiative, usually because the employee doesn't have any emotional attachment to the work or the employer. A marginal employee might grumble that his efforts are not appreciated and that he doesn't get the opportunities he thinks he deserves. A higher than normal rate of absenteeism or tardiness are often indicators of an employee who is not fully committed to the job.
Some bosses think marginal performance is an attitude issue and they blame the employee, but that’s not always fair. An employee may not be able to perform at full capacity because she lacks training or has not yet developed necessary skills. For example, an employee who has trouble prioritizing and managing time may work hard, but may focus on the wrong tasks and miss deadlines as a result. Another possibility is that the boss has been unclear in communicating expectations, so the employee doesn't understand what she should be doing. An employee may also have family issues that distract her from her work.
Marginal performance is not "good enough." It's bad news for the employee because it impedes advancement. Lack of promotion or other rewards can lead to resentment. Marginal performance is bad news for management too because it limits productivity, drags down morale and stifles innovation. The biggest danger for both sides is that marginal performance may eventually give rise to disruptive behaviors as resentment builds. It’s important to get back on track before this happens.
Moving from Marginal to Good
Marginal performance is not incurable, but getting over it takes cooperation and a concrete plan. An honest conversation between employee and supervisor is a must. A manager can start by clarifying duties and responsibilities. If the employee’s and the boss's understanding of the job are not in sync, the “cure” may be as simple as a detailed description of duties so the employee knows what is expected so she can deliver. If the problem is lack of skill, training may be the answer. Sometimes the roadblock may be a misunderstanding of the company’s values. In this case, a mentor might be able to help the employee integrate better into the corporate culture. Once the cause of marginal performance has been identified, managers and employees can work on a solution such as agreeing on a series of benchmarks like a specific decrease in backlogged work or demonstration of a new skill to help measure progress toward the desired level of performance.
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.