At some point as a leader, you will have to handle or deal with an underperforming employee.
Actually, let me step back.
I do not believe “handle” is the best word when you are referring to an underperforming employee. Your goal should be to help the person, not handle them. Mentality matters.
Now, if you are talking about the situation of underperformance, yes, as a leader, you “handle” it. And how you help or handle the situation is important.
If you deal with it well, you can gain loyalty and respect from the underperforming employee and the team, increase productivity, and keep morale higher.
If you handle it poorly, you can cause strife and tension, lower productivity from the entire team, and lose respect from your team and higher-ups. And in that situation, it’s important to remember you want to treat the person with dignity and respect and help them grow or see a different path that fits them better.
How do you handle a situation with an underperforming employee? In this article, we will dive into the steps and checks you need to take for an effective encounter and long-term growth and relationship.
Note: “The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. Laws and regulations regarding the handling of underperforming employees may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. We recommend consulting with a legal professional or Human Resources before taking any action in regards to an underperforming employee.”
Table of Contents
First, check to make sure you did everything you were supposed to do
It’s easy to blame others for their lack of performance, but often as leaders, we need to look at ourselves. While each person is responsible for their own work, we can set them up for failure.
Here are some actions to check to make sure the fix is on you:
1. Are expectations, job duties and roles, and task or project outcomes clear?
Job Duties and Roles
When it comes to that person’s job, are they clear about what the most important tasks of their job are? Are they clear about what they were hired to accomplish? Do you know?
Make sure they are clear about it. Too often, job descriptions are vague and expectations unclear, and employees end up spending time on tasks and activities that really aren’t that important to their job because of that lack of clarity.
Area of underperformance and assumptions
When it comes to the area they are underperforming in, were expectations clearly laid out? Is the outcome you are looking for specific? Is there anything vague about it? Are deadlines and job responsibilities clearly laid out?
Sometimes, it’s easy to assume that others know what we are thinking, or when we assign something, we have an idea but don’t clearly lay it out. It seems obvious to us, but without being specific, it can be interpreted in different ways from different viewpoints.
Be careful about that. Make sure their underperformance is really because you are assuming they should have known something that you didn’t make clear.
Did you check to make sure the person understood your instructions/the project?
We are different people who come from different backgrounds and have different viewpoints. Sometimes it can be helpful to talk to the person to make sure that what they have in their mind is what you have in your mind.
Maybe you didn’t come across as clearly as you thought. Maybe when you say “make a spreadsheet”, what you are thinking about how that should look is different than what they are thinking.
Being clear and checking to make sure it’s understood can help alleviate misunderstanding, and a lack of it can cause confusion.
2. Was the person the right fit for the task?
Sometimes we don’t have a choice – who we have is who we have and stuff has to get done. However, sometimes the reason for an underperforming employee is that they aren’t the best fit for the task.
Sometimes it’s because we rush the hiring process and we get what we get, and sometimes it’s because we don’t pay attention to the employee’s training and skills, and strengths.
If we assign them something they have no knowledge about or don’t have many skills in and just expect them to perform, their low performance is on us.
3. Is the person adequately trained in the skills or knowledge they need to perform the task?
Sometimes employees have the desire and want to perform well, they just don’t have the skills for it – yet.
Did you check to see if the person has the skills they need to succeed with that task? Did you offer training if they did not? Have you offered training to help them improve in that area even if they are “okay” at it?
4. Do they have the resources they need and the ability to do their job?
Sometimes employees fail because they do not have the resources or authority they need to make it happen. If they are tasked to train certain employees on software, but they don’t have access to the computers, software, or training area to make it happen, it’s hard to fulfill that task well.
Sometimes bureaucracy gets in the way. If they don’t have the authority to overcome it, or they have to go through a chain of approvals, or for every decision they have to get permission, a big chunk (if not all) of their underperformance is because of leadership and the bureaucracy they created, not the employee.
5. Have you provided feedback?
If this is a problem that has been going on for a while, but you never have said anything to the employee, the employee may not even know they are underperforming!
- Have you been providing feedback about the quality of their work?
- Have you offered training and resources?
- Have you helped develop a plan for them?
- If the problem has been going on for a while, and you haven’t said anything, a big part of the problem is you – and it’s unfair and unkind to that person and the team for you to not have said anything.
- How can someone improve or know they need improvement if they aren’t told (and don’t see it themselves?)
Before you make judgments are “handle” the underperforming employee, make sure the cause or at least part of the cause is not on you as the leader.
And, if it is, fix it!
Questions to ask about the underperforming employee and the situation
1. What is/are the issue(s)?
- How is the employee underperforming?
- Are they unable to do it?
- Is it poor quality?
- Is it sloppy?
- Was their quality high but now it’s gotten lower?
- Do they take way longer than they should?
- Are they holding others back?
- Are others having to cover for them, taking away from their time on their projects?
Now let’s dive deeper:
- Why is that an issue?
- What’s causing it?
- Is it a lack of skill or training?
- Or are they a poor fit for that task?
- Or are they a poor fit for the position?
- Are they a poor fit for the culture?
- Is it carelessness or laziness?
- Something else?
Keep diving as needed
One method is using the five why’s. With the five why’s, you ask why five times to help you get to the core issue: they are underperforming – why? Then why is that? And why is that?
Keep drilling down till you get to the core issue.
2. Is the person in the right position?
If not, that could be the issue. Is there a better position that fits their skills and aptitude?
3. Is the person lacking certain skills (hard skills – such as a certain software – or soft skills – such as people skills, time management, etc.)
If so, consider how you might train them in those areas.
4. Is the person a right fit for the culture?
Some cultures just aren’t the right fit for some people. That’s okay. It’s good to recognize that when you have a conversation with them.
5. What documentation do you have?
Do you have the work that they did poorly on? If you’ve had conversations with them before, do you have those documented?
These not only can help in the conversation with the underperforming employee but if, in the end, it leads to termination, having documentation will help tremendously.
6. Is this behavior or underperformance a one-time thing or a trend?
If it’s a one-time event, and they normally are higher quality, it just may be that they need help with a particular task or that they had a bad day or week (life happens and that does affect us at times).
If it’s a trend, that’s a different issue.
7. If it’s been a trend, have you or others had conversations with them about it?
If you haven’t, they may not know there is an issue.
It would be unfair to pull out work over a long period of time and complain about it when you or no one else said anything about it.
If you haven’t yet, make sure to have the initial conversation and apologize for you or no one else saying anything to them about it.
Steps to take when dealing with an employee who is showing poor performance
1. Make sure you understand the issue fully (and be prepared)
Make sure you’ve gone through the questions above and it’s not you. If it is, it’s not that you shouldn’t talk to them, you just may need to apologize to them and offer whatever support you need to help them.
Make sure you know the issues and the core issues to the best of your knowledge. You won’t know everything until you talk to the person but know as much as you can.
Make sure to read over any past incidents and documentation on the issue so that you are aware of what has happened in the past regarding this issue.
Be prepared with anything you need. Prepare what you may ask and say and the resources you may offer, and have any documentation you need ready to show (examples of work, past incidents, etc.).
2. Have a conversation with the underperforming employee (in a timely manner)
Once you understand the issue best and have prepared, have a conversation with the employee.
Make sure you do it in a timely manner. Waiting weeks to have the conversation is unfair to the employee and the work may be done with and gone. Have the conversation as soon as you can.
Remember the goal
Unless this is a final conversation about underperformance, your goal is to help the employee succeed. Make sure to keep that in mind and reinforce that as needed (ideally, that should be the mentality of how you come across to them anyway).
Focus on facts, not assumptions
Don’t start off attacking or saying “You did this and that”. Remember in the discussion, separate the behavior and performance from the person. You aren’t attacking the person, you are dealing with actions they took or didn’t take.
Start off with the facts. Avoid assumptions. Don’t assume the “why” of why they did it. You don’t know. You have the facts – you were supposed to do this, and this is what you did. The intentions or assumptions behind that are just that – assumptions.
When/if you do present assumptions, make sure to present it as an assumption focusing on you, not attacking them: “to me, it seems..” “to me, it comes across as…” . “the impression I get when I see this behavior is….”
Don’t tip around or beat around the bush
Don’t beat around the bush. When they come in, they likely know something is up. Trying to do small talk or pleasantries is often just awkward and it’s not needed. Get straight to the point of the conversation.
Ask questions – don’t assume you know everything
Ask questions. You don’t know all the facts. Try to get their point of view. Also, try to get them to come up with a solution (as much as they can) to solve it.
That was a bunch of do’s and don’ts, but let’s look at how it may look.
A sample conversation
“Hi John, the reason I wanted to talk to you is because of the last project you worked on.”
If the person knows it wasn’t up to par, they may start talking. They may just open up about it or they may make excuses. Listen and ask questions.
“I noticed that the work was a week late and it wasn’t up to the normal quality you show. I wanted to know your perspective on what happened?”
When they start talking, saying “Tell me more” can encourage them to keep speaking or dive deeper. When they finish, paraphrase what they said so that you make sure you understand and they know you are listening.
“So, what you are saying is that the project was different because it was using new and updated software, and you spent a lot of time trying to figure it out.”
“So what do you think the best solution would be moving forward? How can I help?”
Of course, this conversation was simplistic and yours will likely be different. Just remember to ask questions, listen well, and try to get the other person to recognize the issue and help come up with the solution (if applicable).
If the person is clearly underperforming because of laziness or carelessness, help them come up with action steps to overcome it.
If they are not wanting to work on it or there have been multiple conversations with no attempts at improvement, then you may need to lay down what the consequences will be if there isn’t any improvement.
The reason I do not suggest consequences or penalties, in the beginning, is the goal is to help the person, not to get them for doing wrong. If someone is giving their full effort and just can’t do it, giving “consequences” doesn’t help, it just causes more stress and hurts it. Consequences should be for those who don’t care, don’t try, and aren’t willing to put in the effort to fix it.
If they are trying and don’t improve, you may need to talk about a different position, see if those specific tasks can be moved to someone else, and if none of those will work, you may need to talk about them finding a place that is a better fit for them and their skills.
Remember that your goal is to help and support the underperforming employee and to focus on facts, not assumptions.
Act to resolve the issue
- If the person needs new training, provide it.
- If they are lacking resources, provide them.
- If the task is a bad fit, and tasks can be shifted, consider shifting tasks.
- If the position is not the right fit, try to find a position that fits them better.
- If they need coaching, by you or someone else, set that up.
- If the person needs to grow in certain areas, work with them to come up with a development plan. Make sure it includes the areas they need to grow, a general timeline, and how you will follow up with them on it. And make sure to provide whatever resources they need to make it happen.
- If the person is not a good cultural fit or this has been a trend that is not being fixed or they just make excuses, lie, and never work to resolve, then it may be time to let them go.
That may seem harsh and hard to some, but if the company is not a good fit for them, and they aren’t good at their job, releasing them to find something that is a good fit is better for them.
And if they are dishonest or toxic – you don’t want them.
Monitor Progress and Follow up as needed
Depending on the issue, you may need to follow up at regular intervals.
If they are lacking resources, then you may want to follow up that they have what they need. If that is a common occurrence, you may want to make it a habit of checking in to make sure your employees have what they need (and that they feel comfortable coming to you when they don’t).
If they need training or have a development plan, you may want to check back with them regularly to see how it’s going. If they are working on certain skills, constant review and feedback can help that employee continue to grow and get better.
Make sure to document as you go. A document can protect you and them.
You don’t want to get to a point where you need to let them go, but you don’t have any documentation to back up why. Make sure to do a good job of keeping records.
Involve HR as needed
Depending on the situation, you may need to involve HR. Or, if you’re just not sure, having a quick conversation with HR can help make sure what you are doing is on the right track.
If it’s time to let go, let go
It does you, the underperforming employee, and the rest of your team a disservice if you hold on to someone instead of letting them go when you should.
Often we say we don’t want to hurt the other person or the team, but in reality, it’s usually about it. We likely don’t want to have to deal with the confrontation or negative emotions that come with it. If we let that keep us from doing what we should, we are in the wrong.
When you allow someone who is toxic or underperforming to continue, people question your pursuit of excellence. If you tolerate mediocrity, why should they bust their tail for excellence?
It can keep your productivity low and cause your higher performers to leave.
And, it’s unfair to that person. If they are underperforming, and you just let them stay where they aren’t doing well because of your fears, you are doing them a disservice.
Final Thoughts on How to Handle Underperforming Employees
Dealing with these situations can be tough.
But it’s part of being a manager and a leader.
It’s also very caring to speak up and let the person know they can and how to improve. It’s actually selfish on your part as the leader NOT to say anything when someone’s work is subpar. Just make sure you do it right. See what parts of the situation may be your fault.
When you encounter the individual, remember your goal is to help them succeed, not get them for doing wrong or for underperforming.
Focus on facts, not assumptions, and ask questions. Listen to their point of view and see what solutions they can come up with to solve it.
And, if they just aren’t the right fit, the best action you can take is to let them go to find somewhere else or a different position where they fit and function better.
I hope this helps.
If you have any questions, suggestions, ideas, disagreements, or anything we missed, please let us know in the comments below.
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