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July 2, 2019 Straight Up Advice: How to deal with an underperforming employee?

underperforming employees

If you own a bar or restaurant, you’ve faced it before: a team member who isn’t giving you their A game (or their B game for that matter). In our next Straight Up Advice article, we asked decision makers in the foodservice biz how they handle an underperforming employee.

What they said was all over the map, in a good way. Some gave two-word suggestions: “tell them.” Others shared fresh perspectives, like viewing your team as a menu (stay with us, it’s actually brilliant advice). Now, let’s dive into how today’s managers and owners deal with an underperforming employee…

“Positive Attitudes are Contagious”

-Leigh Stafford, owner at Ryan’s Saloon & Broiler in Reno, Nevada

Leigh points out a crucial issue in regards to an underperforming employee. If they’re a front-of-the-house team member, your customers are going to notice. Leigh is proactive with her team and takes action at the first sign of an issue using her 3-step plan:

  • Have a conversation with the employee
  • Based on that talk, write up a plan of improvement
  • If expectations in the plan aren’t met, termination

Leigh has had great success with her no-nonsense plan, as many underperforming employees have turned things around:

 “Most underperforming employees are definitely appreciative of the second chance and I feel it’s a form of constructive criticism. Starting with a conversation allows open and candid conversations to take place about job performance. We also talk about how contagious positive attitudes can be – not only to our patrons but to our team.”

In fact, Leigh’s upfront strategy is similar to expert advice we found in the Harvard Business Journal.

“Think of Your Team Like a Menu”

-Anonymous, Manager at a small chain of restaurants in Upstate New York

If only we could reveal our sources of this genius insight on managing an underperforming employee. Alas, they wished to stay mysterious. Here’s what they said…

“I look at my team like I look at my menu. You’ve got your stars. These are your top performers, and your customers love them. On the flip side? You have your ‘dogs’ and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. It’s a menu engineering term. Dogs are the menu items that just sit there…no one orders them. In between is everyone else.”

So far, so good. This analogy made sense to us. Then we asked exactly how this manager would deal with the underperforming employee.

“Hopefully, you are analyzing your menu – and your team – all the time. That’s the first step: you need to be aware that you’re dealing with a dog. But the question is…WHY is it a dog? On a menu, it might be poor placement or an unappetizing description. That’s on you! When it comes to that underperforming employee, it might be your fault, too. Do everything in your power to promote the team member and set them up for success. You’d rework the poorly performing menu item before yanking it off the menu. So, work with the underperforming employee! Involve them in the problem-solving process.”

If all else fails, their advice is simple: it’s time to get rid of the dog.

How to Run a Promotion for Maximum ROI

The ultimate guide for owners & managers.

“95% of the Time, an Underperforming Employee is a Reflection of You.”

-Jeremy Wells, CMO and Partner at Longitude Design in Springfield, Missouri

Jeremy is a thoughtful leader and one we’ve turned to before in our Straight Up Advice series. In his role at Longitude Design, he works with many restaurants, bars, cafes, breweries, and coffee shops. So he’s familiar with life in the foodservice biz.

He also has his own team to manage and shared this thought-provoking advice for dealing with underperforming employees…

“This is very difficult moment for everyone involved. But I’ve found that this can be mitigated when you have a clearly defined culture, values, and systems in place.

A leader should always understand that 95% of the time — an underperforming employee is a reflection of your lack of leadership, communication, systems, or mixture of all of these.

Also, it’s challenging to get a team member to care about their performance unless they know how their role has an impact on the big picture. Helping them see that, and understand why it should matter to them, is key.”

Take a good hard look in the mirror and see how your actions – or lack of actions – are impacting an underperforming employee, and your team in general. For example, do you have job descriptions written for every role? Do employees know what’s expected of them, or are they just guessing?

What about the “big picture” that Jeremy mentions? Everyone works harder if they feel like what they do matters. You might even prevent a good employee from turning into an underperforming employee, if you reward them for a job well done.

Catch your employees going above and beyond for another staff member, or a patron. Give them a small $10 bonus on their paycheck. Call them “good deed dollars.” It’s a small price to pay to keep morale up!

“I Strategically Place Feedback in Between Praise.”

-Samantha Corder, 10 years in customer-facing positions, 4 years in leadership at a winery café and tasting room

Do you remember that Mary Poppins song? “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.” (We apologize if that’s now stuck in your head.) That’s also useful advice for addressing an underperforming employee. Reduce the discomfort of constructive criticism by saying something good about the employee.

Or, as another manager we talked to said, “feed the underperforming employee a compliment sandwich” along with dishing out areas they need to work on.

Samantha Corder is one of many leaders who are being enlightened by the trending Radical Candor method. It’s all about being straight up… 

“I am currently reading Radical Candor which outlines how to properly give feedback to underperforming employees. It’s a great read! Following the recommendation of my boss, I strategically place feedback in between praise. It has worked ok. But I am still developing the skill.”

Samantha went on to explain that the best leaders will promote a culture where feedback does not just happen from manager to employee, but also employee to employee. Wouldn’t it be nice if your own team members could help you get an underperforming employee back on track? To do that, Samantha explains that you need to set up a culture where everyone feels safe – and that any criticism is only meant to help you succeed.

As a manager, you want to first ask the underperforming employee why they are struggling at the job. Then, listen. Really listen, as Samantha suggests:

“The power of listening to each employee is critical to staff retention.”

If there’s one theme we gathered from this advice on managing an underperforming employee, it’s this: Be honest. First, look within at yourself and see if you are part of the problem. Then, address the employee who’s struggling in a compassionate and open way. Let a dialogue take place. It gives you both a chance to grow as a team member – and as a person.

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