It started out great. Sarah joined our team full of motivation, she had the experience in the field to hit the ground running, and I felt that I could trust her to do her job independently. For the first year, Sarah was all that I had hoped: professional, committed and a great team player. What a great hire! I was delighted.                                 

And then things started to change. Sarah began to be late with her deadlines, and to show up late to work. She seemed sluggish, unmotivated, even sloppy. I began to get the definite feeling that she was no longer engaged with her job and with our organization. I began to wonder: should I be letting Sarah go? 

Does this scenario sound familiar? Were you Sarah in this case, or were you her boss?

If you were Sarah, you might know what occasioned the change. It might have been an issue outside of work, like a family illness or marital discord; it might have been a feeling that you had outgrown this job and were ready to move on. Or perhaps you were not even sure why your feelings about your job had changed.

If you were the boss, you were probably wondering what had happened to cause this downturn in Sarah’s performance; and you were probably feeling that no matter what the reason, it may be time to let Sarah go and bring in someone new.

I am a headhunter: I help organizations and companies find great employees. But replacing an employee whose performance is disappointing is not always the right solution. If you face this kind of situation now, it might be the right time to bring in a new hire; but here are some things to consider first. 

Is your employee using his/her talents?

What makes people excited and engaged at work? Generally it’s the feeling that we are doing something that we are good at. Of course, every job has elements that are not our favorite things to do. But when the balance of time at work becomes weighted towards tasks where she does not shine, Sarah will begin to feel drained and insecure. It could be that an open conversation about this question, and a decision to change that balance in her workload, will make all the difference.

Is there room for professional growth?

People need to grow and develop. Sometimes people will begin to feel dissatisfied if it appears that their job will remain exactly the same in the foreseeable future. You can help with this issue, even if the job will not be changing significantly, through demonstrating openness for Sarah to suggest new areas that she could develop while maintaining her current task load, or by offering her options for professional training through the company or with its support.

Is the work environment or schedule taxing? 

Something as seemingly marginal as the time one is expected to arrive at the office can be a cause of dissatisfaction. Perhaps Sarah has to drop off a few kids every morning and the need to rush the drop-offs, sometimes leaving kids crying at the gates of the kindergarten, is enough to spoil her day. Perhaps her office mates or desk location is causing annoyance or discomfort. Having a talk about what technical issues are disturbing can pave the way for creative solutions. Especially since these days there are so many options for working remotely, offering a more flexible schedule may be a very simple solution. 

Does your employee feel appreciated? 

Maybe all that is missing in Sarah’s professional life is some appreciation. Feeling that one is taken for granted is the first step towards a lack of motivation at work. The remedy is simple, but it requires some awareness and effort on your part. Take the time to tell Sarah that you appreciate her work, and be specific. Something like, “You finished that project really quickly, but without sacrificing any attention to detail, and the results were just what we needed – thank you!” goes much farther than “Great job.”   Instituting regular meetings to review her workload and discuss any issues will also give the message that you respect her work.

I guess the common denominator between all of these suggestions is: talk about it!

If you feel that one of your employee is unmotivated, inattentive or irritable, the first thing to do is have an open discussion about what may be difficult, frustrating or depressing for her at work.

Your employee may feel threatened when “called in for a talk”; especially if she is aware that her performance has not been up to par. It’s your job as the employer to put her at ease, by making it clear that you want her on your team, but have noticed that she seems less happy lately and that it has been affecting her work. Try to work together to figure out what has gone sour and how you might turn things around.

Sometimes the result of this kind of conversation will be a mutual decision to part ways – especially if the root of the downturn is an issue outside of work, or a real decision to make a career change. If that is the case, airing the issues together in a respectful and professional manner will enable you to part ways on good terms.

On the other hand, if you are able to discover an underlying cause that can be remedied, you will reap the benefits of continued work with a consistent team, with increased mutual trust, support and respect.