How Do I: Manage a Remote Underperformer?

We all know that COVID is not going away any time soon.  Many people managers are evaluating performance remotely for the first time in their careers.  This blog post is intended to offer some practical suggestions to help managers address the challenge of managing difficult performance situations remotely.

Are the Basics in Place

Assure that all your direct reports actually have written performance objectives.  If one or more do not, clarify and document those objectives.  While this post is not about writing objectives, the tried and true approach to preparing performance objectives is typically known as SMART: 

  • Specific – each objective is characterized by clear criteria for success
  • Measurable – the objective can be objectively quantified
  • Achievable – a reasonable person would agree that the objective can be attained
  • Relevant – the objective is appropriate to the employee’s role and experience level
  • Timebound – the objective is to be attained by a particular point in time

By the way, if you are a manager of managers, it’s a good idea to make sure your managers have gone through a similar exercise with their people.

Reality Check

The world has changed for many, if not most employees and their managers.  Therefore, the first action we suggest after confirming a set of objectives actually exists is to revisit those objectives with the employee.  In reviewing those objectives together, test to make sure they remain relevant and can be achieved under the circumstances.  Is everything clear?  Do you and the employee share a common understanding of the expectations and deliverables behind the words of the document?  If the objectives need to be adjusted, that’s okay.  Performance plans should be thought of as living documents, in any event.  Business conditions change all the time.  The current conditions are an extreme example but changing environments are not unusual.

What’s Going On?

Engage in a conversation with your underperforming employee.  If this is the first time you are observing underperformance, you should seek to understand if something unusual is affecting the employee’s ability to successfully deliver.  With so many people juggling a variety of care responsibilities with work obligations, some flexibility in the nature of and/or timing of deliverables may easily address the problem.  You may need to help manage expectations others may have of this employee in order to accommodate more flexibility.  This is a judgement call you’ll need to make.  That’s why you’re the manager.

On the other hand, if this is the latest manifestation of a previously known performance challenge the key next action is to be constructively candid with the employee about your observations.  A simple, 4-step approach that works well is to

  • Identify (name) the issue
  • Explain why it is important
  • Demonstrate with one or more examples how the employee’s lack of success impacts others or the business
  • Clearly describe what change you expect and when or how (or both)


Nobody likes to do this.  It takes time, it’s not fun, and feels uncomfortable.  But it’s important to codify those actions to which you and your employee have agreed.  The agreements you have reached become the basis for follow on actions.  It confirms there is a shared understanding of your mutual expectations.  To further verify you and the employee have a shared understanding, I like to have the employee prepare the documentation for your subsequent review and discussion. 

By having the employee prepare the agreed actions, you attain greater certainty that there is no misunderstanding.  I typically will ask the employee to send a draft of the document within 24 hours.  If everything is consistent with your discussion, then all you have to do is confirm receipt and agreement.  Otherwise you have the opportunity to promptly renew the discussion and reach clear shared understanding.

Follow Up

Most managers have regularly scheduled check-ins with their employees.   If you don’t already, get on regular a schedule with this employee. Make the scheduling appropriate to the work to be done and the time sensitivity of that work.   Be sure to review the action plan (documentation) at each catch up to evaluate the employee’s progress. Doing this consistently creates structure and accountability around your expectations.  Although it’s okay to adjust the action plan if appropriate, be cautious.  A constantly shifting set of objectives will make it that much more difficult to attain a satisfactory outcome – for both you and the employee.

Closing Out

Once the employee is back on track, confirm to each other that the objectives have been met to each other’s satisfaction.  All things being equal, you should now be able to resume a more routine check-in and performance monitoring relationship.

Final Thoughts

The suggestions presented here are necessarily generic.  There can be many variations of performance challenges and each may require a different approach.  Please contact me if you or a colleague want to discuss your unique situation.

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