Controversial as it may be, forced ranking exists. It is a management approach wherein employees are ranked according to three performance categories: the top-performing 20 percent, the average-performing 70 percent, and the lowest-performing 10 percent. In its worst form, forced ranking is a ruthlessly Darwinian approach: the bottom 10 percent, a metaphorical dirty dozen, is quickly discarded from the tribe; the top 20 percent, the officer class, gets all the spoils; and the middle, vital 70 percent makes up the crew hands that keep the ship going.
Unsurprisingly, this approach has faced criticism from employee, social commentators, and employers themselves. In fact, Microsoft and GE, pioneers of forced ranking, have softened their approach in recent times. Nowadays, many firms practice a more compassionate form of forced ranking in which they look to develop both the squeezed middle and the dirty dozen at the bottom.
No matter what type of management approach your firm employs, you probably recognize the “dirty dozen” concept: the actively disengaged, grossly underperforming minority of staff at the bottom of the performance food chain.
In this modern, talent-starved, more compassionate age, all employers should be looking to nurture and revitalize the dirty dozen, rather than discard them. To help you turn your company’s lowest performer into superstars, I offer the following ten tips. (Note: you shouldn’t impose these tips on employees; in order to be effective, you should discuss them with your staff members and reach an agreement on their usage.)
1. Career Personality Check
Have employees take a personality test. Use the results to determine if their current career or job is suitable for them. Then, you can modify their role or career so it is more engaging for them.
2. Reverse Promotions
The Peter Principle states that ambitious professionals rise to the point of incompetence and fail, leading them to join the dirty dozen at the bottom. So, why not give people a parachute? Allow them a graceful fall back down the ladder to a point where they are comfortable and can again perform to their highest abilities.
3. Internal Career Change
Is there a chance your underperforming employee could be bored by or burnt out on their particular career direction? Perhaps they work in an internal-facing role, but have shown an interest in and enthusiasm for externally focused client work, or vice versa? Could an agreed, negotiated change in career direction revitalize your staff member.
4. Reduction in Hours
It sounds negative, but this move can actually be positive — provided it is not forced on an employee. Dropping a burnt out, underperforming employee from five days a week to four or even three — with their agreement — can give them a chance to recharge and fall back in love with their job.
This works along the same lines as the reduction in hours, but sabbaticals should be reserved for more extreme cases of burnout and career dissatisfaction. Allow these employees some unpaid time off (hire a temporary replacement while they are way) — one, two, or even three months away from the office — to go on their own revitalizing vision quest.
6. Give Them a Mission
If your dirty dozen member has lost focus or direction, but still likes their career path, you can perhaps give them a mission. Find out what really irks them about their job or the business and assign them a compelling mission to solve the problem. Having something to focus on can help the employee reengage with their job.
7. The Threat of a Penalty
You could always try the traditional penalty system. Put your employees in a performance-improvement program. Let them know that if they fail to meet specific targets in a specific time frame, they’ll face some sort of penalty — perhaps even dismissal, depending on the severity of the employee’s failure.
8. Performance-Improvement Incentives
There’s a growing body of research supporting the idea that carrots motivate better than sticks. One study I found showed that employees put in more effort when incentivized with bonuses than they put in when threatened by penalties. Can you offer employees a positive incentive for performance improvement?
9. Modifying Their Role
Perhaps the focus of a low-performing employee’s role doesn’t suit them. Perhaps there is too much emphasis on selling and not enough emphasis on customer support or technical consultation. Can you adapt or otherwise mold their role to make it more engaging for them?
Studies show that only 11 percent of new hires fail due to a lack of job-related technical skills. Following this line of thought, we can surmise that many employees underperform for reasons of attitude, rather than competence. This is why most of the preceding tips focused on attitude adjustments. However, there is a chance that a lack of functional competency is holding some employees back. If this is the case for any of your employees, implement technical training solutions.
Dealing with the disengaged, negative, and underperforming dirty dozen is one of the most challenging aspects of management, and it’s tempting to just walk away from the problem. However, if you deploy some of these techniques, I am confident that you can turn many of your lowest performers into superstars.