Tough Interview Questions: Tell Me About a Time You Had an Underperformer Working for You?

This question is asked at the manager level and above.  The notion is they want to see if you worked well institutionally to accomplish a result.  As a result, you’re a hiring manager, you are an employer, the 1st thing you do, if you are working for a firm that is large enough to have an HR organization, is that you want to confirm with them, a process that you want to engage in.  You want to involve other constituencies and get their input.

For example, someone I coach runs an area for a company with two underperforming people, one who is someone relatively new; the other one was a veteran individual and who had been a high performer for a long time. I believe that you deal with both of them differently.  Let’s start with a relatively new person.

You meet with them.  You get clear about what the goals and expectations are.  You put them on a ‘leash’ and talk with them clearly about what you want to accomplish.  Usually, new employees get very defensive at being confronted.  I have to say, “confronted,” because that’s how it feels to them.  For you, you want to get clear with them and confirm with your HR organization that it’s not that you are writing them up; you’re making it clear that you want to see certain types of results by a certain time.  They have to be compliant with policies and procedures.

“For example, if you are in a sales organization and expected them to input data into your tracking system; they have to be doing that continually and when someone isn’t, what that does is give you concrete data on what they are doing.  Wherever you can, don’t go with your gut feelings.  Try to work with the data, particularly with your person.  They are going to get defensive. Point out to them that the numbers and information that they have inputted is a problem.  It is way insufficient.

“If you think this employee is suddenly going to start putting in phony stuff, you have a bigger problem on your hands.  One thing you can do is tell them, ‘one of the things I would like to do is to talk with customers that you’re calling on and see what their feedback is because it might be useful.”  If they suddenly respond by saying, “No, no, no, don’t do that,” there is a message in that.  They are more concerned about what the optics are than that they getting the results.

“There is lots of stuff that goes along with the newer employee that I think is interesting.  At the end of this, there are 2 possible outcomes.  They either turn things around or they are fired.  At the end of the ‘probationary period,’ ultimately, they have to “make the cut.”  They have been forewarned; they haven’t delivered a result; that was the condition that you set, and, as long as there hasn’t been a hurricane that occurred during that period, you are good to go.

Here’s an example for the very experienced person who has been a high performer for a long time.  ‘You have to recognize that sometimes they get into a slump.  Sometimes, they develop bad habits.  Habits sometimes consist of them not prospecting for new clients.  They try to do things like cut deals; they sell purely based on price and offer discounts galore.  If they are in non-sales roles, they might just get fat, dumb, and happy and stop thinking aggressively about their position and what is expected of them.

The 1st thing you want to do is sit down with them in a compassionate sort of way and say, ‘Hey, look. I’m seeing something very different from you.  Is there anything going on your personal life that I need to be aware of?’”  Sometimes, people are going through rocky times with their wife, husband, or partner, sometimes there is an ill parent. You want to understand what is going on for them and then, from there, work on seeing where the habits are and whether they are doing the sorts of things they should be doing to get the results that you are used to from them.

What’s different?  What’s going on?  You have a certain amount of data because you are seeing the results and outcomes and that is what is prompting the meeting.  The idea is to show some things and, if it’s a salesperson or someone in an internal role, consider sending them to a course to get them back up to speed.  Think about what you can always do to help them return to what the previous normalcy was because, in this way, you send a signal to the rest of the organization.

Sometimes, they are in trouble.  There is something that is bothering them.  Sometimes, they need a friend to talk to and they don’t feel comfortable talking to a peer and it has to be you.  At the end of the day, most of the time, these folks are spoken with, they turn things around or wind up changing roles.  Either way, this is good for you.  You get someone out of your organization who is a problem or you get them to return to normalcy.

“When push comes to shove, with the veteran individual who has been a high performer for a long time and is just in a slump, often, just what is needed is a friendly talk with them where you show some care for them.  They are waiting for it and hoping for it. They just don’t know when it’s going to come.  You are afraid to approach them and they are hoping you come to them because it gives them a chance to get rid of some of the tension.”

If asked about this, remember to talk about the newer individual and also about the high-performing veteran individual and focus on expectations and behaviors and keep it out of the personal.

Ⓒ The Big Game Hunter, Inc., Asheville, NC 2020

 

ABOUT JEFF ALTMAN, THE BIG GAME HUNTER

Jeff Altman, The Big Game HunterJeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. His work involves career coaching, all as well as executive job search coaching, job coaching, and interview coaching. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 1800 episodes, and is a member of The Forbes Coaches Council.

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Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter
Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter

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