10 Tips for Addressing Underperforming Employees

Although school leaders should constantly look for opportunities to delegate, a few 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 and 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 in the process and administrators can expect a reprimand by the teachers association.


Whether they will admit it or not, most leaders are embarrassed when told they did something wrong. Throw in the fact they are informed by the very people they supervise on a topic of which they are supposed to be experts and you can understand why leaders' egos take a serious blow.


Quite often, this chain of events results in leaders acting one of two ways: defensive or apprehensive.


Defensive leaders don't like being told they are wrong, so they push back even harder. Instead of admitting they are wrong and working with their employees, these leaders create an adversarial relationship with those individuals.


Apprehensive leaders don't like being told they are wrong, so they back off the employee. Instead of making adjustments and revisiting the plan of assistance, these leaders stop the process entirely and leave the employee alone.


In either case, the original goal - to improve a substandard employee - is no longer the focus.


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I have made several mistakes while addressing underperforming employees throughout my administrative career. When errors happen, I have a tendency to take things very hard. However, I have come to realize that all educational leaders make similar mistakes. Given the overly bureaucratic world of public education, following every letter of the law is nearly impossible.


Rather than beat myself up too hard, I now try to use setbacks as opportunities to get better the next time a comparable situation presents itself. Treating each misstep as an opportunity for personal growth allows me to appreciate my shortcomings.


I have also found great value in documenting key ideas related to employee coaching and discipline. Taking time to outline my ideas not only helps me remember these concepts, I'm also able to share this information with our administrative team to ensure we follow the same protocol.


Below are ten basic ideas about employee coaching and discipline. While far from perfect, these tactics have received praise from legal firms and educator associations 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: The direct supervisor must be disciplined in documenting employee concerns. Too many evaluators do not commit time to summarize and record actions related to employee underperformance. As a result, school districts often lack evidence when it comes to implementing more formal plans of assistance and/or discipline. Keeping accurate documentation of employee underperformance is a vital role for leaders.


Patterns: Supervisors must focus on patterns of underperformance as opposed to single events. Certainly, severe errors in judgement must be immediately addressed. However, in most cases supervisors should document a series of minor infractions before jumping to formalized intervention. The cumulative nature of the infractions provide the evidence needed to justify further intervention and/or discipline.


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 as well as 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 your 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 decisions on employee discipline or dismissal, the file also becomes valuable during changes in leadership.


Coaching Conversations: Informal support focusing on professional growth for employees, coaching conversations are meant to develop new skills, refine existing skills, and meet performance standards. The direct supervisor is responsible for mentoring and assisting the employee for the purpose of developing specific areas of improvement. Coaching documents should be placed in the employee's working file.


Awareness Phase and Verbal Warning: An elevated notice employee performance or behavior, the awareness phase and verbal warning are the second steps in terms of employee intervention. The awareness phase is the result of issues that have not been alleviated by coaching. The verbal warning is used to respond to issues with employee behavior. Both documents should be placed in the employee's working file.


Plan of Assistance and Written Warning: When an employee’s performance is non-responsive to prior coaching and conferencing or more serious in nature, the plan of assistance and written warning serve as formal interventions. The plan of assistance is an official acknowledgement of the employee’s substandard performance and notice of more serious consequences. The written warning is used to document severe employee misconduct. Both documents should be placed in the employee’s personnel file.


Annual Evaluation: Below-standard performance addressed in prior conversations that has not been corrected must be identified in the employee’s annual evaluation. The evaluation should reflect the complete picture of employee performance. In most cases, employees should not be surprised by a below-standard rating. All annual evaluations should be placed in the employee's personnel file.


Signature: Does an employee need to sign a corrective document? There is no requirement that employees sign documents of reprimand. However, best practice would have employees sign and date these documents to establish a clear record of receipt. In event an employee refuses to sign the corrective document, 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: At a dismissal hearing, absent serious misconduct, management must establish the employee was provided multiple opportunities for coaching and did not respond to those interventions.

The district must show evidence the employee did not respond to multiple corrective measures to prove that the employee is likely to continue the same behavior in the future.


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Next time you make a procedural mistake while addressing a subpar employee, do not take things personally. Instead, realize many other educational leaders have endured similar experiences.


Leaders who treat each misstep as an opportunity for improvement not only find confidence in addressing underperforming employees, they create better schools as a result.


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