How to handle a slacker

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It’s difficult to manage people who fly under the radar. They do just enough not to be caught out, but too little to excel. They test the limits in all areas, and are known more for what they haven’t done than what they have accomplished. It’s never a good thing to call a person a “slacker”, but it is critical to assess why you think an employee falls into this category, and to then write down the specific issues that need to be resolved.


Why is your employee underperforming?


Never assume that you know the reasons for poor performance. Set time aside to discuss your concerns and observations with your employee, and to see if he or she consider these accurate. Find out if there are any contributing factors and why they believe they aren’t meeting performance standards.

Make sure that you clearly understand the responses, by repeating them: “So if I have understood you correctly, you believe the reason(s) is/are…”

Once you’ve heard your employee’s perspective and explanation, consider the validity of these responses.

Some answers may require more thought than others; don’t make the mistake of responding immediately. If the situation warrants more investigation, take the time to do so. Your employee will respect you more for taking the matter seriously rather than giving slick, ill-considered answers.

If your employee’s responses are unacceptable; tell him. You need to set standards and make sure that they are understood.

Put a plan into action

If the employee raises valid concerns, acknowledge these and explore ways to address them. Solutions could include training, improved systems, faster computers or additional resources. Ultimately you want your employee to commit to an action plan to rectify the problems.

Work out reasonable time periods for improvement. Some issues can probably be resolved almost immediately, while others may require longer periods for assessment. Monitor progress and meet regularly. Don’t set review times and then postpone them when work becomes too busy. Follow up doggedly to show that you are committed to the process.

Along the way, document what has been discussed, deliverables agreed upon and the relevant time-lines and then send a copy to the employee concerned. Written communication is essential; when an employee is under review he may suddenly be struck by amnesia.

Beyond the process specified above, you may want to consider the following:

–          Has the employee always been slack or is there a reason for the deterioration?

–          Is it just one employee or are others also slacking off too?

Interrogate your management style

If more than one employee is underperforming, or if their work has deteriorated over time, you should consider whether your management style is actually the problem. Have you ignored problems? People often disengage if their poor attitude is tolerated; they learn that there are no consequences for their conduct.

Do your employees miss deadlines? Do they arrive late for meetings? Are cellphones answered during serious conversations? Do they arrive unprepared for meetings?

Ask yourself: Do you meet your own deadlines? Are you late for meetings? Do you regard your calls as more important than the issues at hand during a meeting? Do you make sure you have the right information on hand and that you’ve gathered your thoughts before going into a meeting?

Set an example 

I often see differences between how business owners manage themselves, and how they manage their employees; different rules seem to apply. You need to set the example, hold yourself accountable, lift your game and improve standards so that others want to follow you.


Act quickly. Your employees will be acutely aware if a team member isn’t performing and will expect you to act decisively. If this doesn’t happen or is delayed, they will wonder why.

Be consistent. If you raise an issue with one employee but haven’t addressed it with others in the past, your instructions may be questioned.

Coach required behaviour. Detail the actions and behaviours you require from your employees. For example: “I expect you to complete projects at least 24 hours ahead of schedule; ban yourself from Facebook; notify me of changes immediately; regularly volunteer ideas in meetings; make notes from our discussions etc.”

Behaviour doesn’t change overnight, so be prepared to issue repeated instructions but try different ways. Offer advice on how to approach work in a timely and enthusiastic way. Set goals and expectations and consistently follow up. There are limits to how often you can be expected to keep doing this, particularly when it relates to a single problem.

I’ve watched as employers counsel employees for a year or even longer with no improvement. In my view, there are few scenarios that should require counseling for longer than two to three months. Work out what you think is a reasonable time, but if these goals still aren’t met, discuss the issues again and agree on a final date for improvement. If this final date passes without change, call a final meeting and give your employee a last opportunity to explain why he should not be dismissed. If this explanation isn’t satisfactory, you have a tough decision to make…

About the author: Rob Rankin is founder and co-owner of and has dealt with Human Resource issues for over 20 years in a multitude of industries. has been providing Human Resource services to clients since 2003 and prides itself in giving both specialist and generalist expertise to medium and small businesses in the Western Cape. He can be contacted on 0861 HRADVICE, 0861 472384 or 083 453 9833.

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