How to tackle under-performing employees

How to tackle under-performing employees

In an ideal world, your staff are performing well and achieving their personal, team and company goals. Everyone is motivated and pulling in the same direction, and as a result, your customers are getting a wonderful experience. In reality, we know this is not always the case for many businesses. Sometimes your staff just don’t or won’t perform to the level that is expected of them. How can you identify these employees, and more importantly, what can you do to tackle under-performing employees…

Identifying the under-performers

Your staff may be:

  • Failing to achieve the goals or targets set.
  • Unable to consistently maintain the required level of performance.
  • Not keeping up with changes in the workplace – e.g. picking up new skills or working with new technology.
  • Unable to respond to clients appropriately.
  • Demonstrating a shortfall in productivity compared to others in a similar role.

Skill versus will

The first step is to consider whether the issue is one of capability (ability to perform) or conduct (willingness to perform) or “skill versus will”. If your staff member has the skill but is deliberately being difficult, obstructive, argumentative, non-team orientated or coasting, or they are generally not putting in the effort, running late or knocking off early then this may be a conduct or “will” issue, rather than one of capability. If this is the case, your disciplinary procedure should be followed.

Under-performers could be slowing down projects, turning customers off, causing friction within a team and ultimately costing you money. The sooner you address these issues, the better – burying your head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away is not the solution.

How to tackle under-performing employees

Firstly, consider why your staff member may be underperforming. Is it related to their experience or length of time in the role? Has there been sufficient training/development/coaching? Have they previously been performing? If so, what might have changed? Are their goals realistic/achievable for this individual? If not, why not? Do you think the underperformance is due to capability? Or could there be other reasons that need investigating?

If there are no obvious issues or quick fixes (e.g. consideration of an alternative role, change in working pattern etc) then have an open, honest and documented conversation with the individual:

  • Explain what the issues are – make sure this is evidence-based. What examples or evidence have you got to demonstrate that they are not meeting the performance requirements e.g. “I have noticed that you have missed two important deadlines in the last three weeks” rather than “your work has been a bit sloppy recently.”
  • Explain what impact their performance is having on the team, customers, and the company.
  • Ask them why they think their performance has taken a dip.
  • Ask them what you can do as their line manager to help them/support them further. What barriers could be removed? Are there any extenuating circumstances that may be exacerbating the problem?
  • Consider what steps can be taken in the short and medium term. Agree on some short-term goals that can be regularly reviewed to help them get back on track.
  • Put a series of review meetings in the diary so that you can monitor performance and discuss their performance REGULARLY until they are back on track.
  • Make sure they know that if their performance doesn’t improve it may be necessary to move to a more formal performance management process which could ultimately lead to their dismissal. If you end it here, you might want to say something about involving an HR expert to guide them through the formal stages of performance improvement.

If there is no improvement after a reasonable time period (4-12 weeks for example) you may need to move to a formal process.

Step 1: Addressing the issue

You’ll need to record:

  • The performance issue – with clear examples – the specific areas where performance is not meeting expectations e.g. which objectives or goals or standards are not being met.
  • The reason for the performance issue – the objectives or goals that require review; role requirements changed or need clarifying; individual personal circumstances; team dynamics; need more line manager coaching; new to role etc.

What needs to be done?

Record the agreed employee and line manager actions (e.g. objectives revised, role clarification, reasonable additional support, action to improve teamwork, adjustments to reflect personal circumstances). Agree the level of ongoing support, frequency of review and timelines. Both the employee and line manager should have a copy of this document.

Step 2: Set up a series of support and review meetings

At a minimum, these should be every two weeks for a reasonable timeframe (for 4 – 12 weeks) during which time you would expect to see an improvement in performance. Record the outcomes of these meetings. Read our guide to managing performance reviews remotely.

Step 3: Review performance

After the 4 – 12 week period, review the staff member’s performance. Are expectations now being met?

If yes – you will need to closely monitor and review their performance to ensure they sustain it.

If no – you may need to go back to step 1 and reassess what needs to be done considering new issues or mitigating circumstances that have arisen. You will need to document the agreed new targets and follow steps 2 and 3 again.

If there is still no improvement, and you have followed a clear, fair procedure, and importantly you have documented every step, you may have sufficient evidence to dismiss the staff member.

However, it is always advisable to ensure you seek advice from an HR expert before taking any action.

Keeping your staff member motivated during performance improvement

It is important to try to keep your employee motivated throughout this process and keep in mind that it will be a challenging time for them. You should always:

  • Acknowledge and praise progress.
  • Encourage ongoing good performance.
  • Outline future expectations.
  • Continue to support your staff member.
  • Continue to review their performance with them.

For more top tips on under-performing employees, review our guide here. 



For help with managing employees or more information on how to tackle under-performing employees, please get in touch to arrange a free 15-minute informal chat.

Written by:

Marketing Team
Marketing Team - We are a team of HR and business consultants based in Guildford, Surrey and work with hundreds of clients across a range of industries ranging from healthcare, hospitality and finance to media, manufacturing and IT.