How to Handle Unproductive Employees

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How to Handle Unproductive Employees

Faked enthusiasm is a dangerous thing.

While some of your employees might pretend to love where they work, there’s a good chance at least a few of them have completely checked out mentally.

A recent study from Gallup found that less than one-third of workers are engaged with their work. And while that may not be an epidemic at your company, chances are that you’ve got a few employees who just don’t care enough to pull their weight.

As a business owner, you know that firing people is expensive and training new employees costs even more. So how do you get workers who seem unmotivated to be more productive? There’s no sure fire way, but here are some helpful hints on how to handle unproductive employees.

Address Issues in Person


You might be tempted to wait until it’s time for your employee’s review to address the lack of productivity or other issues, but putting off this discussion never solves anything. Address the problems as soon as you recognize them. When possible, schedule a meeting to discuss issues in person instead of addressing the issues via email. If an in-person meeting is impossible – like with a remote employee or road-bound sales person – schedule a phone call instead.

Get to the Root of the Problem


During your meeting with said problematic employee, before anything else find the root of their unproductivity. There may be a reasonable reason why your employee is unproductive and, in fairness, you should give them the benefit of the doubt. This issue may be organizational, which means it’s something you need to fix. Or they may be unmotivated by their current assignments, or may just be plain lazy. And once you’ve identified the root of the problem, spend time with your employee to figure out the appropriate solution.

Make Changes to Your Business If Needed


After you’ve met with the employee – and presumably agreed to keep them on – you’ll likely need to make some changes on your end as well. If you found out that your employee thought his or her talents weren’t being used appropriately, you may need to reassign some tasks, or restructure roles around the office. Take some time to assess who in your organization has the best skill sets and assign tasks accordingly.

Motivate, Motivate, Motivate


If you found your unproductive employee felt overwhelmed, break their tasks down into smaller, more manageable tasks so they can complete them more quickly and feel more productive. Beyond that, work with the employee to set achievable goals so he or she gains an even greater sense of accomplishment. And as they reach more of those goals employees will be motivated to stretch even further.

Obviously, you’ll want to offer rewards for these goals too. But don’t just set them for the unproductive employee, set them for the entire company. If the employee doesn’t reach those goals, he or she will see others receiving incentives for their productivity, and should be even further motivated to work harder.

Additionally, do what you can to create an enjoyable work environment. Whether this means frequent company outings or just a light-hearted corporate culture, employees will be far more motivated to be productive if they like where they work.

Finally, once you’ve identified the problems, set goals, and adjusted your organization accordingly, sit back and see if things get any better. If the changes made don’t improve productivity, it may be time to cut your losses and look elsewhere.

Unproductive employees aren’t always fixable, but they’re not lost causes either. Following these guidelines should help you manage them as best you can, and hopefully one day you’ll find that once-disengaged employee is now your biggest star.


Matt Meltzer

Matt Meltzer is a professor of business communication at the University of Miami. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and holds a bachelors degree in business administration from UM, as well as a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida.

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