How to Manage an Underperforming Employee

Assuming leadership within a team presents its challenges, with the question of how to manage underperforming employees being among the toughest.

Still, it’s on you to handle it. We get that it’s awkward and emotionally draining to call out an employee for poor work. You want to support your team, not micromanage them. But you also have key business objectives to hit. So when one person drags down performance for everyone, it’s time to step up. 

This guide will walk you through having those difficult talks while still being empathetic. You’ll learn how to create an action plan that sets clear expectations. We’ll also cover what documentation you need just in case. Even if it feels stressful in the moment, you can handle this in a way that’s fair and understanding.

Identifying Signs of an Underperforming Employee

According to a Gallup survey, around 16% of employees are disengaged at work. Of these, many are likely underperforming.

As a manager, it’s important to monitor your employees and be on the lookout for signs that someone may be underperforming. Some indicators that an employee may not be working up to their full potential include:

  1. Poor quality of work. If an employee’s work product seems sloppy, half-hearted or ineffective, this could signal an issue. Double check that expectations and requirements were clearly communicated. If work quality does not improve, it may be time for coaching and a performance plan.
  2. Missed deadlines or procrastination. We all run behind schedule sometimes, but if an employee is frequently missing deadlines or putting things off until the last minute, it may indicate a time management or motivation problem. Meet with the employee to identify any roadblocks and see if you can support them in developing better habits.
  3. Excessive lateness or absenteeism. While the occasional late arrival or day off is unavoidable, frequent or unexplained lateness and absences can negatively impact work and team dynamics. Address this issue promptly through a formal discussion where you convey your expectations regarding attendance and set clear consequences if the behaviour continues.
  4. Lack of communication or enthusiasm. An employee who is withdrawn, does not engage with colleagues or seems indifferent about their work may be disconnected or unhappy. Schedule a one-on-one meeting to check in on how they are doing in their role and see if there are any issues you can help resolve. Re-motivating an employee will benefit both them and your team’s productivity.
  5. Difficulty accepting feedback. If an employee gets defensive or makes excuses when given constructive criticism about their performance, it may indicate an unwillingness to improve. Explain the importance of professional growth and have an open discussion about their reactions to feedback. Set clear expectations that they need to be receptive to coaching.

The sooner you detect signs of underperformance, the faster you can determine the cause of the issue and take steps to help the employee get back on track. With support, communication and accountability, many struggling employees are able to significantly improve their performance.

Common Reasons For Underperformance

As a supervisor, determining the underlying reasons for an employee’s underperformance is key to helping them get back on track. Some of the most common causes of underperformance include:

Lack of skills or training

The employee may lack certain skills or knowledge to do their job properly. This could be due to inadequate initial training or a failure to keep their skills up to date with changes. Provide additional training and coaching to help fill in the gaps.

Misalignment with job responsibilities

The employee’s strengths and interests may not match well with their current job duties. Talk to them about their passions and talents to try and find a better role match, either through restructuring their current position or finding them a more suitable job.

Personal issues affecting work

Outside personal issues like health problems, financial stress, or relationship troubles can negatively impact work performance. Have a caring conversation with the employee to understand their situation better. Try to be flexible and accommodating if possible. You may also suggest resources for extra support.

Of course, underperformance could also be due to lack of motivation or poor work ethic. But it’s best not to assume this right away. Take the time to understand the underlying causes to determine the appropriate next steps, whether that’s coaching, changes to job scope or responsibilities, or in some cases performance management. 

The key is to address underperformance promptly before it becomes an ongoing issue, with empathy, support and solutions focused on helping the employee thrive and succeed.

Strategies for Managing Underperforming Employees

Managing underperforming employees can be challenging, but with the right techniques you can turn things around. Here are some effective strategies to try:

Set Clear Goals and Expectations

Meet with the employee and reiterate your performance standards and metrics for success. Be specific about what they need to achieve to meet expectations. Get their input and come to an agreement together. Put the goals and expectations in writing so there is no confusion.

Have Regular One-on-One Discussions

Schedule weekly or biweekly meetings to check in on their progress. Provide both positive and constructive feedback. Discuss any roadblocks they are facing and work together on solutions. These consistent conversations will keep them on track and help build accountability.

Adjust Their Workload or Schedule

Sometimes underperformance is due to an overwhelming workload or poor time management. See if any tasks can be reassigned or deadlines extended. You may need to help them improve skills like prioritisation and scheduling. An altered work schedule may also help in some cases.

Deliver Recognition and Appreciation

When the employee shows improvement or achieves milestones, offer meaningful recognition and praise. This positive reinforcement will keep them motivated to continue progressing. You can also consider offering small rewards and incentives for key accomplishments.

Consider Making Temporary or Permanent Role Changes

If the employee’s current role or responsibilities seem to be a poor fit, consider transferring them to a more suitable position – either permanently or temporarily until they regain performance. This may involve changing teams, reporting lines or job scope. Make sure to discuss this option sensitively and honestly.

In summary, dealing with underperformance requires a combination of communication, support and accountability. Focus your efforts on understanding the root cause, setting clear expectations, providing the right resources and acknowledging progress. With patience and consistency, you can help most employees get back on track and succeed in their roles.

Involve HR or Consider Replacement (As a Last Resort)

If an employee continues to underperform after you’ve tried the above strategies, it may be time to bring in HR or consider finding a replacement. Terminating an employee is always a last resort, but sometimes it is necessary for the good of the team or company. HR can advise you on next steps and proper procedures.

When to Consider Letting an Underperforming Employee Go

At some point, you may need to consider whether an underperforming employee is still the right fit for your team. This is never an easy decision, but keeping someone on who is not meeting expectations can hurt productivity and morale. Some signs it may be time to let an underperforming employee go include:

  • Consistently missing performance targets or deadlines. If an employee has been given clear objectives and support but still struggles to achieve them, they may lack the skills or motivation for the role.
  • A poor attitude or refusal to improve. An employee who is defensive or makes excuses rather than accepting feedback and committing to do better will likely continue to underperform.
  • Limited progress despite interventions. You’ve provided coaching, training, and chances to correct issues but seen little meaningful improvement. Further investment of your time is unlikely to change things.
  • A negative impact on coworkers. An underperforming employee can damage team cohesion, motivation, and productivity. If other staff are consistently frustrated or having to pick up the slack, it may be best for the team to make a change.

Letting someone go is difficult, but sometimes necessary for the success of your organisation. Have honest conversations about performance issues, provide constructive feedback, and set clear expectations. Make resources and training available to help the employee improve and give them reasonable timeframes and opportunities to do so. However, if you’ve done what you can to support them to no avail, it may be best for both parties to move on.

The decision is never easy, but as a leader, you need to make the choice that will allow your team and company to thrive. Focus on learning from the experience and work to hire employees who have the motivation, skills, and cultural fit to succeed in their roles.

FAQs: How to Manage an Underperform

As a team lead, one of your biggest challenges is dealing with an employee who isn’t meeting expectations. Here are some common questions and tips for managing an underperforming team member:

What should I do first?

Have an honest conversation with the employee about your concerns. Explain specifically how their work isn’t measuring up and give clear examples. Discuss what they need to do to improve and set concrete goals and deadlines. Be polite but straightforward – don’t beat around the bush. Put the discussion in writing as well, to avoid confusion.

What if the issues continue?

If the employee’s performance doesn’t improve after your initial conversation, it’s time for more serious action. You may need to:

  1. Provide additional training or resources to help them strengthen their skills. Some people simply need more support and guidance.
  2. Issue a formal performance improvement plan (PIP) that details the areas needing improvement and the steps to take within a certain timeframe. Be very specific about the consequences if the PIP isn’t met, e.g. probation or termination.
  3. Consider whether the role is the right fit. The employee may be better suited for a different position. If possible, see if you can reassign them to a more suitable role.
  4. As a last resort, you may need to terminate the employee if all else has failed. But only do this after thoroughly documenting your efforts to help them improve.

How should I handle coworkers’ reactions?

Explain the situation professionally and positively. Say you tried to help the employee strengthen their performance but were ultimately unable to come to a resolution. Reassure coworkers that the termination was carefully considered. Ask them to remain focused on their own work. With time, the office dynamic will return to normal.

The keys to managing an underperforming employee are: communicate clearly, provide support, set clear expectations, and take appropriate action. With patience and the right approach, you can turn the situation around or make a difficult but necessary decision.


So there you have it – the steps to manage an underperforming employee while avoiding some common pitfalls. With patience and a constructive approach focused on improvement rather than punishment, you can often turn struggling workers into star players. Just be sure you have clear documentation to support any formal warnings or performance reviews. If an employee ultimately can’t or won’t meet expectations, termination may become necessary, but handle it professionally and compassionately.

Your team’s performance depends heavily on its weakest link; put in the effort to strengthen them, and you’ll strengthen the whole chain. Now take a deep breath and remember that even the best supervisors have had to navigate tricky personnel issues. You’ve got this!

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