10 Tips for Addressing Underperforming Employees

Although school leaders should constantly look for opportunities to delegate, certain tasks remain the sole responsibility of administration. One of those tasks is addressing underperforming employees.


School administrators are the only individuals with the authority to formally address subpar employees. Given the connection between teacher effectiveness and student achievement – as well as the correlation between support staff actions and student outcomes – dealing with underperforming employees should be viewed as one of an administrator's most important responsibilities.


Despite its critical nature, administrators are given minimal training on the topic. Rarely are these skills taught in college or during pre-service training, meaning leaders must acquire these skills through experience. Unfortunately, administrators must quickly become experts on employee improvement, as small mistakes can result in big issues.


Say a teacher is a chronic underperformer and the administrator decides to place the employee on a formal plan of assistance. While remediation sounds like a logical next step, leaders must be precise in following the countless procedures as outlined by employee handbook, school board policy, and state law. A single misstep can result in a teachers' association reprimand or even legal action.

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I have made several mistakes addressing marginal employees throughout my administrative career. When errors happen, my ego takes a serious blow. Not only does receiving criticism suck … being told you messed up by your subordinate is especially embarrassing.


When this happens, I usually get defensive or apprehensive.


Defensive means I refuse to admit my mistake. Rather confess my wrongdoing and work toward a solution, I stubbornly dig my heels in and fight fire with fire. Apprehensive means I retreat from my mistake. Instead of accepting my error and reengaging in conversation, and I back off the employee and halt the process.


In both cases, I am more concerned with protecting my ego than tackling the situation. The original goal – to improve a substandard employee - is no longer the focus.


Rather than respond in an unproductive manner, I am now trying to view setbacks as opportunities for improvement. Although reflection can be uncomfortable, I have found turning mistakes into personal growth allows me to appreciate my shortcomings.


Now when I make errors addressing below-average staff members, I journal about those experiences. I've found capturing "in the moment" lessons prevents similar mistakes in the future. Furthermore, outlining my thoughts helps me teach others leaders about the evaluative process.


Below are ten basic employee coaching and discipline principles I share with our administrators. While far from perfect, these tactics have received praise from educator associations and legal firms alike.


Let me be clear, by no means should the following be considered legal advice. When dealing with employee issues in your district, consult with your human resources department or district legal counsel.


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Documentation: Documenting employee concerns is a critical responsibility for school leaders. Unfortunately, many administrators lack the awareness and patience to summarize and record specific actions related to employee underperformance. In today’s overly-bureaucratic world, school districts must collect evidence to justify employee coaching and dismissal.


Patterns: Supervisors must focus on patterns of underperformance as opposed to single events (see page 112). Aside from severe ethical and safety concerns, supervisors are required to document a series of infractions before jumping to formalized intervention. The cumulative nature of the infractions provides evidence needed to justify further remediation.


Working File: Typically an electronic file maintained by the employee's direct supervisor, the working file is used as a temporary holding file to archive coaching conversations and document minor employee violations. When the employee's performance or behavior warrants formal intervention or discipline, documentation should be moved from the working file to the personnel file.


Personnel File: Typically a physical file found in the district's human resources department, the personnel file is the employee’s official work record. Significant employee concerns should be placed in this folder. Keeping documented paperwork in one location not only supports future discipline-related decisions, the file also becomes valuable during changes in leadership.


Coaching Conversations: Leaders must offer continuous support to all employees. When supervisors notice deficiencies in performance, they (or a designee) must engage employees in coaching conversations. The purpose of these discussions is to develop new skills, refine existing skills, and help employees meet performance standards. Coaching documents should be placed in the employee's working file.


Awareness Phase and Verbal Warning: An elevated notice of employee performance or behavior, the awareness phase and verbal warning are secondary intervention steps. The awareness phase addresses competency-related employee issues, while the verbal warning responds to behavior-related employee issues. Both documents should be placed in the employee's working file.


Plan of Assistance and Written Warning: When employees are non-responsive to coaching or their conduct is serious in nature, the plan of assistance and written warning serve as the most severe types of intervention. The plan of assistance is an official notice of persistent substandard performance while the written warning is used to document extreme behavioral misconduct. Both documents should be placed in the employee’s personnel file.


Annual Evaluation: Annual evaluations reflect a complete picture of employee performance, meaning uncorrected below-standard performance must be identified in this document. Keep in mind the annual evaluation should not be the first time the employee is made aware of deficiencies (see page 115). Annual evaluations should be placed in the employee's personnel file.


Signature: Do employees need to sign corrective documents? While there is no “legal” requirement, best practice is to have employees sign and date remedial documents to establish a clear record of receipt. In the event an employee refuses to sign, the evaluator could write the following: “On (Date), I handed this document to (Employee) who refused to sign acknowledging receipt. (Evaluator Signature/Date)"


Dismissal Hearing: As the “victim mentality” continues to pervade the modern workplace, leaders must be methodical in keeping accurate documentation of employee intervention. When personnel issues reach dismissal hearings, schools must establish the employee did not respond to coaching despite being afforded several opportunities. Furthermore, schools must prove the employee is likely to continue underperformance in the future.


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In Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott shares: “The vast majority of leaders with whom I have worked tend to hold out hope that marginal employees will magically transform themselves into high performers. I don’t know about you, but I have not yet witnessed a spontaneous recovery from incompetence.”


Addressing underperforming staff is not easy. However, administrators who want to improve their schools must have the courage and the skills to address below-average employees.


By following the principles outlined in this section and reflecting on their missteps, leaders can approach future employee situations with increased confidence and ability.


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