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Rewarding poor performers – are you guilty?

This morning at a Networking Event which I had organised in aid of Childline one of the presenters, Shane Twomey, a fellow HR consultant, threw out a question that really made me think! ” How do you reward poor performers“.  Initially he was met with stunned silence.  You could almost hear people thinking…”what on earth is he talking about…who would reward poor performance?”.  But then the penny dropped.

I must admit that despite being a seasoned HR professional I had never really thought about the issue of under performance in quite this way.  Of course I have expereinced it.  And had to deal with it.  And even had to deal with managers who didn’t deal with it.  But I had never thought about it in terms of “reward“.  But of couse we do.  How?  Well let’s look at what typically happens to poor performers in an organisation:

  • You / their manager ignores them
  • They are given less work
  • Less is expected of them so they have lower targets / performance standards
  • They are paid the same or similar pay to average and even high performers
  • They are promoted (so they can become someone else’s problem)
  • They get a salary increase (well they haven’t been told there is a problem with performance so they have to get it)
  • More time is spent on them, dealing with issues and correcting problems
  • Others are asked to help them complete their work
  • They are given overtime to allow them to complete tasks
  • They are not asked to do any additional work
  • They are regularly sent on training courses (well they aren’t doing much else)

Of couse at the same time you are punishing your high performers.  Typically they will:

  • Be expected to work harder and faster
  • Get the same or similar salary to poor performers
  • Get less training because they are too valuable to release
  • Get less of the managers time and therefore less coaching and mentoring
  • Be given all additional work
  • Have higher targets and standards

The list goes on!  And what does that poor performer think about his higher performing colleagues?  Well he probably thinks they are fools and secretly laughs about them.  And what do they think about themselves.  Eventually they will begin to see themselves as fools too.  They will get tired of always having more work, always having to pick up the slack because their co-workers aren’t up to standard and never seeing any reward.  And honestly, even if they are being rewarded they will eventually become demotivated when they look at their poor perfoming colleagues who can just do as they please, never have a heavy workload and can just amble along, stress-free.

So are you guilty of rewarding your poor performers? If so, it is time you took action – NOW!

Jackie Prendergast is a dynamic and focused HR and business professional with over 15 years experience in both public and private sector environments. She is a firm believer in the concept of delivering excellence through, and with people and strongly supports an ethos of continuous learning and development in the achievement of goals. Jackie established her own HR & Management Consulting practice - Consulting Excellence - in 2007. Working primarily with SMEs and private clients Jackie provides a range of HR advice, support and services. She has written a number of articles on C.V. preparation and Interview Skills as well as a short Interview Guide (E-book). She is also a business mentor with Dublin City Enterprise Board’s Mentor Panel. In addition Jackie runs an online network for SMEs (and consultants / service providers operating in that space) on LinkedIn - SME Links Ireland.

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  • Anonymous


    Good post, a very valid question to ask, and I am sure many a page has been written trying to convey people’s thoughts on the subject, so I will add my bit here:

    Leadership – I view this as showing example to people who work for you or who follow your direction to reach those goals. The leader sees the future before others do, and hence makes decisions early to allow the events that may happen in the future not upset the strategic goal.

    Management – This is about taking the direction that is been worked towrards, and managing that process to reach the goals that are set.

    People can be good managers, but not necessarily good leaders, it takes a special type of person who has both qualities. Over my limited experience to date having worked in multinationals , there are many managers, but few become a leader, it is sometimes becomes evident from an early stage who are the managers and who are the leaders.

    Good debate to have, I am sure others will have some good points to make.


  • Kelvin, that a nice opening for a discussion.

    From a complexity sense-making perspective Zaleznik is suggesting that Managers take an ordered approach to the work while Leaders work through unorder. Snowden & Boones piece in the HBR “A Leaders Framework for Decision Making” (accurately in my view) says leaders need to do both. I have an electronic copy of the paper if you need it. [This is a development from the Cynefin ideas]

    I read a very good Drucker piece a number of years back where he ends up concluding – after wandering carefully through a number of areas – that real management and leadership are essentially the same. I remember being convinced at the time by his discription.

  • Kelvin, interesting post, and always an interesting comparison. Managers work within the business and leaders work on the business, they concentrate on the vision and long term goals, and keep the managers motivated 🙂
    I read a great story once about a bunch of managers hacking their way through the jungle with machetes, working up quite a sweat. They were too busy hacking away at the undergrowth, making little progress to notice one of their guys (or girls) climbing up a tree. They shouted up “Hey what are you doing up there, can’t you see we are busy hacking away down here, come give us a hand.” The manager up the tree shouted back down and simply declared “Lads, we are in the wrong Jungle”
    I must find that story again – shows how one can stand out from the crowd and become a truly great leader. Thanks for sharing. Elaine

  • Also known as “manager burying their heads in the sand”. Good thought provoker Jackie. In my experience, dealing with poor performers from the outset is the only thing that can be done to address the situation. Unfortunately this can take considerable management time to ensure that it is done correctly. One of two things can happen with a poor performer who does not wish to improve; they either are allowed to coast as you indicate or they leave – hopefully the latter if they really are a lost cause. However, if they leave because their manager “drove” them out, constructive dismissal cases can suddenly spring up. If you do have a weak performer, as a manager, you have an obligation to follow due process to make sure that individual improves or is put on a formal, well documented, disciplinary process.

    Have you given all the training they require? Have you set and agreed targets with them for improvement (measurable)? Have you reviewed those targets and documented if they were not met (may be needed in any disciplinary procedures)?…. oh, and while all this is going on, have you ensured that your good performers are getting the recognition they need – even if that is just a job well done comment?

    Managing poor performance is a management necessity. If you don’t, the business will suffer – period. If you do have weak performers, get it addressed. The longer you leave it, the more difficult it will become.

  • Jackie, This a “bingo” post!

    Paradoxally perhaps the opposite is often also the case in that we don’t reward performance.
    I have come across situations where performance/productivity is frowned upon in organisations. Where there are high numbers of non-performers, it becomes socially unacceptable even to the point of damaging a person’s opportunity to progress “The who does he or she think they are syndrome”

    Another point is that there is an obsession with working hard (or indeed sometimes appearing to work hard) What we fail to realise is that hard work without achievement, while it may be endearing is virtually without value. Yet we continue to value “hard work” over “achievement” It’s a strange world.

  • Hi guys, thanks for the comments. I absolutely agree that managing performance, particularly poor performance is a management necessity and am constantly amazed at the failure to do so. It seems to matter little whether organisations are large or small, public or private sector the “ignore it and it will go away” approach seems to be rife. It is particularly worrying for small businesses who simply cannot afford any dead weight yet seem unable to deal with it.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing looks like a great tool for Outlook users. Really like the social media features.
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  • Anonymous


    Agree completely with your thoughts and it is essential for any business to engage with their employees and improve their performance. Its a simple formula to create a successful well running business
    Too often in the situations you’ve described the firm believes the answer is in more skill based training. Teach them how to do the job better faster differently. But no matter how much skill they may have without the desire to use it, performance is inevitably going to suffer. The question is really – is his poor performance a result of poor motivation ( a round peg in a square hole) or is it a case of just someone who is bone idle and getting away with it.
    The only way to discover the cause is to test and quantify the level of motivation, discover what really motivates that staff member and then create a reward policy to engage him fully. Test Change and Retest and if you get the same results then you really know the problem!!!

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