Years ago, a popular television game show aired in which contestants had to work together to answer an increasingly difficult series of questions. Over time, when someone answered a question wrong, they were called “the weakest link," and eliminated by their own teammates.
Organizations can be a lot like this game show; as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, individuals may start to become liabilities rather than valued assets within a team. These are the employees who stay just outside of the fringe, who do the bare minimum each day at work to stay off the boss’s radar. They may not be troublemakers, but they do tend to drag teams down because they consistently don't pull their own weight. Unfortunately, these kinds of employees can be hard to spot at first because they’ve gotten so good at blending in.
How can you identify a weak link in your employee chain?
Ryan Duguid, senior VP of technology strategy for Nintex, believes the key to answering that question is data. Duguid spoke with HR Dive about the use of analytics to help identify weak links, using the example of Nintex's Hawkeye platform. Hawkeye, he said, looks at the effectiveness of the processes clients run as well as the activities their employees perform.
“With those insights, and the ability for business users to make rapid changes to the processes they are responsible for, it’s easy to focus on troubleshooting and continuous improvement," Duguid said.
Understanding where employees are failing to work up to full capacity comes down to the right use of data — in real time.
“While it’s always been possible to use this kind of data to understand how people are performing against expectations or service level agreements," Duguid said, "it’s been hard to analyze that data at scale to look for common patterns of behavior and identify issues that at first glance may seem unrelated. With enough time and money, you could probably figure out what’s going on, but in all likelihood, it would be too little, too late.”
Duguid predicts that this use of data will improve over time. Advances in big data analytics and machine learning, he said, have made it possible to "sift through massive volumes of data, identify issues or opportunities, and make decisions to address them in real or near real time.”
Once a weak link employee is identified using data analytics, how then can a company deal with this? While some think such employees pose a threat to organizations, others see the situation as a chance to help an employee reach his or her true potential. This could be a superstar employee in the making.
Jeff Boss, co-founder of Chaos Advantage, says that in his experience as a leadership and team coach, these “weak links” are weak because someone hasn't taken the time to have a conversation with him or her to identify the right role yet. His advice: “Start by identifying what’s important to employees, why, and how their actions support the larger organizational mission. When people know how their contributions make a difference, they understand why they're important, and that’s a powerful motivator.”
"When people know how their contributions make a difference, they understand why they're important, and that’s a powerful motivator."
Co-founder, Chaos Advantage
Is there any hope of salvaging a weak link employee?
Boss told us that it’s up to the employee on whether he or she chooses to change. “If you have these conversations and the employee prefers to stay 'weak,' it might be time to look for a new employee," he said. "If there are no standards to measure up to or if an employee is unclear, then there are no expectations either, which means there’s no accountability.”
Duguid agrees. “Identifying low performers, understanding their challenges, and putting a plan in place to help them up their game is key to creating a competitive culture and building trust in the workforce,” he told HR Dive.
What could be behind a weak link employee's lack of performance
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having these types of interactions with weak link employees. But what if they have some personal issues interfering with their ability to perform up to expectations? Robert L. Ortbals Jr., an employment attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, told HR Dive there are several things to be mindful when communicating with and creating a plan to help such an employee.
“Generally, it is legal for an employer to have discussions with an employee about their work performance, including soliciting the employee’s own feedback about their work performance," Ortbals Jr. said. "But an employer must take care when the employee’s view of their performance differs from the employer’s view.”
If there is a conflict between what the employee sees and what the employer expects, Ortbals Jr. said that employers need to engage in well-documented coaching or corrective action. This should be focused on identifying any misperceptions the employee has, followed by a clear plan of action of what the employee is to achieve over a specified time and consequences if the employee doesn’t meet these standards. Documentation protects the employer if termination of employment happens later down the road.
In the case where an employee may be dealing with a hidden health issue or the care of a family member who needs additional support, he or she may demonstrate less than stellar work while on the clock.
“It is generally the employee’s obligation to notify the employer of a health issue for which the employee might need an accommodation or medical leave," Ortbals Jr. said. "If the employee fails to provide notice, then an employer can hold them responsible for their previous performance failures even if those failures were caused by the health condition.”
But, he warns: “Once the employer is on notice of the health condition and the condition’s impact on the employee’s work, it should engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee to determine whether a reasonable accommodation or medical leave is legally required or would assist the employee in performing their job functions moving forward.”
In some cases, granting an FMLA leave may be the appropriate response to temporarily alleviate some of the stress of working while the employee works out his or her family health crisis.
Fortunately, it is possible to salvage the performance and future outlook of a weak link employee, which is far better than the alternative. However, the sooner action is taken to correct poor productivity and restore performance expectations within the team, the better.