Guide to Managing Underperforming Employees

Chad Prinsloo | Web Designer

Tiaan Dwyer  |  HR Specialist

August 20 2021

Employees can be a company’s greatest asset or its biggest liability, depending on how they carry out their responsibilities. In fact, underperforming employees can undermine your organisation’s performance. Learn what causes employees to underperform and how to manage underperforming employees and increase their productivity.

What is underperforming?

Underperforming occurs when an employee’s quality of work has decreased below the required level. The characteristics and severity of these situations vary, but the following behaviours often demonstrate underperformance:

• Failure to execute duties to meet expected standards.
• Disruptive, negative, or unacceptable conduct.
• Deteriorated compliance with rules, procedures, or policies.

Productive employees are necessary for any organisation to sustain its business. On the other hand, underperformers can have an undesirable effect on your company in several respects, including:

Decreased productivity – An underperforming employee will not be offering the output that their position requires. The work may be late or not completed, forcing other team members to have to pick up the slack.

Reduced quality of work – Employees who do their tasks at a substandard level will not produce quality results, causing customers and others to have a poor view of the company.

Declined morale and collaboration among employees – Poor performance from one person can cause resentment and frustration that undermines teamwork.

Every employer is bound to encounter times of fluctuating performance, but true underperformance needs to be taken seriously. Managers must be able to spot the employees who are struggling and address the root causes.

Why do employees underperform?

There are many reasons why employees underperform. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Shortage of skills – An employee was put into a role they aren’t adequately equipped for and don’t feel confident in. Also, they may have the technical abilities but don’t know who to manage their time well.

Ambiguous expectations – If job standards and organisational goals are unclear, employees won’t know exactly what is expected of them.

Job dissatisfaction – The job is not what they anticipated, so they feel disappointed and lack the motivation to make effort.

Not a suitable culture fit – Sometimes, people won’t feel connected to a company culture or a team because it doesn’t match up well with their work style and values.

Stressful work environment – A high-pressure atmosphere or personality clashes with co-workers can cause stress that affects performance.

Not enough training and development opportunities – Without being able to learn new skills, some employees get sluggish and don’t improve their performance. They may also feel less motivated if they don’t see a path for development and career advancement.

Lack of variety – Doing the same tasks every day can become boring and cause employees to lose interest in their job and have no inspiration to do it well.

Insufficient onboarding – Proper onboarding will familiarise and engage employees. If this doesn’t happen, they can be ill-prepared for their roles.

Personal issues – Challenging circumstances in employees’ personal lives can impact their ability to concentrate on their tasks.

How to manage underperforming employees

Underperformance is a common dilemma among employees of all levels, and each instance has unique aspects. Knowing how to handle these situations with a consistent approach can prevent them from hindering your team’s productivity.

Taking the following steps can help you address workplace underperformance:

1. Acknowledge that there is a problem

Be observant to circumstances and conduct that may be indicating performance issues. Frustration and lack of interest often coincide with underperformance and manifest themselves in certain behaviours. Some of the telling signs of underperformance include:

• Disassociation from tasks and responsibilities
• Reduced output and quality of work
• Recurrent slowness or absenteeism
• Discouraged behaviour or unprofessional conduct
• Decreased interaction with colleagues

As soon as you notice that an employee is underperforming, you need to act. Start by documenting specific examples of how their work has suffered and doesn’t meet expectations, including any problematic behaviour you’ve observed. Then it’s time to approach the employee and schedule a private, one-on-one meeting to address the situation and gain awareness of their perspective.

2. Have a meeting and determine the causes of the underperformance of the employee

It can be a mistake to assume you already know what the root cause of an employee’s lack of effort is. In order to find out the actual reasons, you must set an appropriate tone for the meeting and ask the right questions.

The one-on-one meeting should occur in a place that is free from interruption and distractions where you won’t be overheard. Without taking an accusatory posture, start the meeting by describing specific examples of the employee’s underperformance and how it affects the rest of the team and the company.

Then you can move on to uncovering what is contributing to the underperformance on the employee’s end and how you as a manager or the company may be playing a part in the situation.

Here are some sample questions that can provide insight into the employee’s perception of the situation:

• What part of your job do you enjoy and feel the most motivated by?
• What frustrates you about your job? Are there any areas that you feel ill-equipped for?
• Do you feel you’re playing to your strengths in your role? Where do you feel like there is a steep learning curve for you?
• How well are you handling your current workload?
• Do you see any areas where your performance could improve?
• Do you see how your work benefits others or the organisation?
• Are there any external factors that could be affecting your work?
• Do you feel optimistic about your future with the company?
• Is there anything else you want to share with me?

These example questions will get input from the employee about how the work environment may be impacting their performance:

• Are the expectations for what needs to get done and the level of quality made clear enough to you?
• Do you ever feel like you’re being set up to fail with unrealistic expectations?
• Are the tools and resources needed to do your job well available to you?
• Do you have the time you need to accomplish your tasks?
• Do you understand how your work adds value to the company and who benefits from it?
• How does my communication/management style come across to you? Does it inspire you to do your best?

Listen attentively to the employee’s responses and ask follow-up questions to better understand them and demonstrate your interest in their side of the story.

3. Restate job responsibilities

Make sure that the employee understands what you expect of them and the areas that require improvement. Instruct them on all the tasks involved and the standard at which the employee should fulfil them. Have documentation for what the targets are and how the employee has missed them, so there is no room for misinterpretation. In general, stipulating exactly what must be accomplished within the job will help the employee focus on what they should be striving for.

Be aware that often it is new hires who are uninformed about specific expectations. This can occur if the position’s responsibilities aren’t clarified during the hiring process. Furthermore, business changes that call for added expectations can confuse a new employee unfamiliar with the organisation’s flow.

4. Manage employee expectations

If an employee’s hopes for their job have not been realised, they may not perform at a high level. They could have particular demands for compensation, career advancement, employer ethics and values, job security, etc. but are not seeing them play out.

You must discover what an underperformer has been hoping for from their job and the organisation to see if it is realistic. If there is a mismatch between what they anticipate and what you can offer or do for them, this is an excellent time to discuss whether they can adjust their expectations or not.

5. Develop an action plan together

Once you and the employee have discussed the underperformance issues and causes, you can create an action plan together to work toward a resolution. You can make suggestions for fixing the problem and encourage the employee to come up with their own recommendations.

Look for opportunities for job redesign or retraining/reskilling, based on the cause of underperformance. If the issues are of personal nature, you can propose taking time off to deal with them.

The plan should incorporate several angles:

• Outline of actions that each party is responsible for.
• Set a timeframe for achieving performance improvement, including potential consequences for serious issues.
• Support and resources to be provided (training/mentoring/duties adjustments/time off.)

6. Ensure regular check-ins and follow-ups

The odds are that resolving an underperformance situation will take more than one conversation, and you must give the employee a reasonable amount of time to improve. Arrange daily or weekly meetings to review the employee’s progress on the action plan and encourage further growth. Give the employee plenty of opportunities to explain how their work ethic is developing and what is still challenging for them.

These meetings hold the employee accountable and provide you with the chance to emphasize performance goals and follow through with any necessary training and support. You will also be showing the employee that you genuinely want to help them improve.

Once the employee’s performance reaches an acceptable level, commend their success and discuss how they can maintain this standard of work.

7. Recognise progress

If you are asking an underperforming employee to improve but never show appreciation when they do, they can feel distanced. As the employee starts to make headway, be vocal about the change you have noticed. Praise them for their effort and refer specifically to what they have accomplished and the positive impact it has.

This recognition goes a long way toward giving the employee confidence in their abilities and inspiring them to work harder on the pattern of progress. Likewise, they will feel appreciated for their strengths and trust that you want to see them succeed and believe they can.

8. Practice performance coaching

Learning on the job through day-to-day interactions is an excellent way to improve performance. Managers who understand performance coaching can create relevant learning opportunities out of causal dialog during work situations. This practical guidance can point employees toward new ways to do their jobs better.

9. Provide feedback

Providing specific and constructive feedback to an employee who is striving to improve their performance is essential. It will help them see their progress and be aware of areas that still need development. Ideally, it should include 360-degree feedback that you’ve gathered from people who interact with the employee. These opinions will provide insight into how the employee’s performance impacts others.

Consider these principles when offering feedback:

• Focus on one or two issues per session to avoid overwhelming the employee.
• Keep the critique straightforward but positive.
• Point out how the changes made are making a difference in their team’s productivity.
• Commend the employee for their achievements to increase their confidence.

10. Retain thorough documentation

As with addressing any employee issue, you must document the steps taken for dealing with an underperforming employee. A chronicle of the situation is a helpful resource along the way, especially if the dilemma doesn’t get resolved and the employee disputes the process.

Be sure to keep the initial records from the onset of the problem and then take comprehensive notes of what transpired during any subsequent meetings and conversations. Additionally, revise the formal action plan if updates are needed.

After each discussion, email the employee a summary of what transpired and any planned action steps. Don’t forget to save any email responses/proposals from the employee. You should also track the employee’s progress in writing.

11. Make a decision if performance doesn’t improve

One employee who slacks off directly impacts morale and the work environment. If you allow the underperformance to continue without repercussions, the other hardworking team members can become bitter and discouraged.

If the performance doesn’t show signs of progress after investing a reasonable amount of time into the action plan, you need to contemplate other options. The two most common solutions are reassignment or termination.

Reassignment – The employee could be better suited for another position within the organisation that has different responsibilities. An alternative role with demands that fall within their current scope of technical knowledge and interpersonal skills could be just what the employee needs to feel fulfilled.

Termination – When you’ve exhausted all other options, you may have to come to the last resort of letting the employee go. Although this is not ideal, it may be the best viable solution for everyone involved. The termination process is never pleasant and can get complicated, so you must follow all HR procedures and your termination policy carefully.


Although dealing with underperformance can be a time-consuming process, most underperforming employees will embrace a collective effort that coaches them to do their job better.

Once you understand what causes underperformance, you can come up with an action plan to tackle it. Keeping in touch and monitoring the progress of your underperforming employees is the best way to turn an underperforming employee into a productive member of the team.

If there is something I want you to know about me right away, it’s that I have a passion for supporting business owners. I believe in the future of South Africa and that there are so many opportunities out there to be successful and to make a change to our economy.

I want to be part of that change by providing businesses with core HR and Labour Solutions that will not only result in legislative compliance but actually positively impact their bottom line.

Over the years I have gained practical HR experience working in various sectors such as mining, construction, financial services, and corporate legal. As a business owner myself, I can relate well to businesses and what their needs are.

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