The best way to approach an underperforming employee

It’s always counterproductive to lose an employee, says Christine Whelan. She outlines the best way to deal with those who consistently fall short of key performance indicators, regularly miss targets, or frequently make errors with lasting impacts. 

Approaching an underperforming employee is a tricky task, and not one that should be undertaken lightly. There’s a right way to handle it and a great number of ways it can go wrong. It’s in your best interest for all employees to be performing to a high standard, and in that sense, it’s definitely worth taking the time to understand why an employee’s performance is subpar in order to help them get to where they need to be. 

Of course, performance requirements will differ greatly based on the job, the organisation and industry, but when we talk about underperforming employees, we are not referring to those who make mistakes on occasion. An underperforming employee is one who consistently falls short of key performance indicators, regularly misses targets, or frequently makes errors with lasting impacts on the organisation. This hypothetical person is either not doing the work they are supposed to do or is not doing it in the right way. 

Factors that contribute to an unsatisfactory performance will again differ from person to person and organisation to organisation, but there are certainly recurring themes. We’ve found that when newer employees are underperforming, it’s often due to their training either being insufficient or not completely understood. In this situation the failure to perform accordingly comes down to a lack of proper knowledge or a misunderstanding of expectations. 

On the other hand, underperforming employees who have been in the job longer are often underperforming due to a lack of managerial oversight. This means their performance has been allowed to slip because they haven’t been pulled up on a gradual decline in quality. 

Finally, performance issues at work can often stem from problems an employee is experiencing in their private life. The employee in this situation is under stress that they aren’t able to put aside during work hours, and their performance suffers as a result. 


A clear picture of performance 

The first thing you need to do is make sure you have a thorough understanding of the employee’s performance. This means keeping a record of things not being done correctly, failure to meet KPIs, and any critical errors that have been made. Before you speak to the employee, you need to have a clear picture of where they are performance-wise. 

Once you’ve completed this record, it’s a matter of sitting down with the employee and opening up a dialogue. It’s important to approach this from a place of concern, rather than taking an accusatory tone. You should avoid any statements that point fingers or imply it is simply the employee’s problem. Underperformance should be communicated as a joint problem shared by the business and the employee. 

Taking this kind of approach means that you can discuss the employee’s performance and together you can identify why there are performance issues. From there, it’s far easier to proceed to a pragmatic discussion on how to address the problem. 

The earlier you address performance issues the better. It’s natural to want to give employees a chance to prove themselves (after all, you hired them for a reason) but the longer you let underperformance go unaddressed the harder it will be to help the employee lift their game. Start making a record as soon as the first issue is realised. At worst, you’ll be prepared to offer help sooner, at best you won’t need to proceed any further. 

Keep in mind that it’s always counterproductive to lose an employee. Recruitment, on-boarding and job-specific training is time-consuming and more expensive than helping existing staff improve their performance. Additionally, be aware that lifting employee performance can be a long process. In some situations, staff will be able to improve quickly, while in others, you’ll need to be patient – good things take time.   


Christine Whelan is a senior consultant at Strategic Pay. 

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