How To Deal With Underperformance In The Workspace?

Underperformance can crop up slowly and silently among employees, especially with many people working remotely. Underperformance in employees can have a huge domino effect if it is not dealt with swiftly and could result in significant issues such as profit loss, decreased team morale, and high turnover.

It is inevitable. No workplace is immune. There will come a time (and there will likely be many times) when you need to address performance or lack of it with an employee. 

Understanding how to manage underperforming employees is a critical aspect of leadership. Whether you are a small business owner, an executive, a manager, or an HR professional, you must have a plan when it comes to managing underperforming employees.

Next, we investigate what constitutes underperformance, including what causes it, how to identify an underperforming employee, and the necessary steps to help resolve the issue.


  • What is underperformance?
  • What are the causes of employee underperformance?
  • How to deal with polite but underperforming employees?
  • How to manage an underperformer - remotely? 
  • Why is it crucial to address the underperforming employees?

What is employee underperformance?

In a well-managed workplace, all employees receive targets to reach. Clearly defined expectations are in place, and a failure to succeed in them is underperformance.

Underperformance, or poor performance, is the process when an employee fails to meet the standard of work that you expect and have set out in their contract, or their productivity is low.

Underperformance should not be confused with poor conduct as that relates to the behavior and not the quality/ quantity of employee work. An employee who sticks to the code of conduct can still underperform and vice versa.

The consequences of underperformance are clear. Yet, it can be hard to identify underperformance occurring in the organization.

The following points underline some of the many examples that would classify as underperformance:

  • Failing to perform duties to a high standard or not performing their tasks at all 
  • Non-compliance with work policies and procedures 
  • Poor behavior that negatively impacts others in the workplace or team.

What are the causes of employee underperformance?

What are the reasons employees lose their enthusiasm and underperform their duties? 

Set up a meeting with the underperforming employee and discuss their performance and find out if there are any underlying circumstances affecting their work.

There may be personal issues such as bad health, relationship problems, a family illness that is causing a distraction and making it difficult for the employee to perform at their best.

These causes are often more hard to tackle as they are factors outside of your control; however, there are things you can do to support and accommodate your employee.

In most cases, the cause of underperformance is an internal issue.

You may not have provided enough training to the employee, and they are struggling to carry out their role, or you may not have made your expectations of them clear, or the workload may be too demanding.

There are many reasons why an employee might be underperforming. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us started to work from home for the first time. While the benefits of working remotely are plain, the new unknown and uncertain reality has challenged our emotions, causing some employees to feel stressed or burned out. Not all underperformance is due to the employee rebelling, being lazy, or simply being insubordinate. 

The simplest of reasons could be causing staff underperformance and, sometimes, the simplest of solutions can make all the difference. Nevertheless, it may be a little more complicated if there is no exact cause for their underperformance, and they are just not prepared for the job.

Below are some reasons why an employee might be underperforming:

A weak onboarding process

How an organization manages its practices and processes has a lasting effect on staff performance from day one.

With time restraints and high costs of implementing an effective onboarding system, organizations try to shortcut the process when they don’t understand the overall benefits.

Investing in quality induction and pre-training will aid learning and decrease employee turnover

With support from HR onboarding technology, time and costs are significantly lower. It is a win-win situation for everyone!

No room for growth opportunities or incentives

Employee goals vary - some may be after job stability, while others may want to grow within an organization. They want to have the option to progress up the corporate ladder.

If there is no clear path for them to advance within the company, some employees may display attributes of underperformance.

It is also crucial that incentives are in place to motivate employees to deliver quality work. They can include raises, bonuses, or promotions, all of which should be explained clearly in performance reviews and company policies.

Lack of challenges

Lack of variety in the job can lead to everyday tasks becoming mundane. Staff motivation is an ongoing challenge at work. Many factors can contribute to staff underperformance, such as job security, lack of company benefits, incentives, poor communication, the list goes on.

Taking daily actions to boost employee engagement will increase overall motivation and performance.

Lack of resources

As simple as it sounds, without proper resources to enable staff to conduct their jobs, of course, underperformance is going to occur!

Working within a company where some of the methods in place are from the Dark Ages not only delays the development of an employee skill-set, it makes processes much slower, targets hard to meet, and in turn, staff performance suffers.

Lack of proper internal communication

Workplace transparency has a high value for today's workforce, especially with remote working situations, where people expect to be updated by management regardless of their working location. 

Providing regular, informal feedback and guidance is an effective method of dealing with staff underperformance, and having approachable management who are accessible allows the employee to discuss concerns also.

Work-related stress

Work-related stress is an all-consuming illness that develops when an employee can not cope with the workplace demands. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the stress and burnout issue to the forefront. According to an Eagle Hill Consulting study, 25% of workers are experiencing burnout due to the pandemic, while another 19% feel burnout for other reasons.

Insufficient job design or lack of crucial management skills can result in stress and is linked to underperformance, high levels of absenteeism, presenteeism, and staff turnover. 

Employees are understandably unable to work as anxiety impacts them physically and mentally, affecting their overall performance and ability to deliver high-quality work.

Unclear goals and expectations

The expectations of a role should be explicit before an interview even takes place.

If the job needs several changes, they must be communicated rather than implied. There should be no room for confusion related to someone's role, as this can cause significant confusion and underperformance.

There are many ways to ensure the job design aligns with the job description, and implementing an HR system is one of the most efficient ones.

Personal issues

We all have problems outside of the workplace, and unfortunately, not everyone leaves their issues at the door.

When people feel down and bring this attitude to their work, this negatively impacts their performance. It has a knock-on impact on the rest of the team, and overall performance deteriorates.

The best solution is to address the issue immediately and provide an open-door policy to allow employees to discuss what is going on.

Depending on company policy, employees may need to utilize workplace counseling and take some time off or sick leave

How to deal with polite but underperforming employees?

Sooner or later, every manager must learn to deal with an underperforming employee. There are several good ways, and equally, as many unhelpful ways to deal with this issue.

Taking the following steps can help you address and deal with workplace underperformance:

A. Acknowledge there is a problem.

Be alert to circumstances indicating performance issues. Frustration and apathy often coincide with underperformance and manifest themselves in certain behaviors: 

  • Disassociation from tasks and responsibilities
  • Reduced output and quality of work
  • Recurrent tardiness or
  • Discouraged demeanor or unprofessional conduct
  • Decreased interaction with colleagues.

As soon as you notice an employee is underperforming, you need to act, schedule a one-on-one meeting to address the situation and learn their perspective.

B. Question yourself first

All employees should know from the beginning what you expect of them. If not all the details are plain, they may not even realize they are underperforming.

Ask yourself these questions before approaching the person.

  • Have all employees been told what you expect from them? If you don’t have an employee handbook, now is the time to write one. 
  • Do they understand what the repercussions are from underperformance?
  • Are they given regular and clear training?
  • Are you confident that they understand they are underperforming?

If you feel that they are not even aware of their performance failures, perhaps education rather than confrontation is needed.

C. Meet with the employee

It is a mistake to assume you already know the root cause of an employee’s lack of performance. To find out the actual reasons, you must meet with the employee, set an appropriate tone, and ask the right questions.

The one-on-one meeting should occur in a private place free from interruption and distractions. Create a safe environment where employees can share what contributes to the underperformance. Ask them how you as a manager or the company may be playing a part in the situation. 

Without taking an accusatory posture, you should:

  • Start the meeting by describing specific examples of the employee’s underperformance
  • Explain how it affects the rest of the team and the company
  • Detail the outcomes you want to achieve from the meeting
  • Allow the employee to respond and give you their view of the situation
  • Listen and ask questions to understand their response to the problem and why it has occurred
  • Use a relaxed and encouraging tone and show confidence in the employee’s improvement ability.
  • Prepare a coaching approach to the dialog.

You can’t coach someone who thinks that they need no help. In the initial conversation and throughout the intervention, the employee must acknowledge the problem.

On the other hand, if you see a willingness to change and a genuine interest in improving, chances are you can work together to turn things around.

Write out the questions to help you explore the issue with the employee. Some helpful questions are:

  • Have you noticed this? 
  • Has this happened before? 
  • What is getting in your way? 
  • Can you help me understand why you did (or didn’t) do this? 

Then be quiet and let them answer.

D. Develop an action plan together

Once you and the employee have discussed the underperformance issues and causes, you can strategize an action plan together to work toward a resolution. You can make suggestions for fixing the problem and encourage the employee to set goals. Ask employees how they would like to improve, what they would like to achieve, and any new skills they wish to learn.

Collaborate with the employee to set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-framed) performance goals for improvement.

When developing a solution, you should:

  • Make sure the employee understands the change you require
  • Explore ideas by asking open questions
  • Suggest ways to fix the problem, and invite the employee to make suggestions as well
  • Offer appropriate support and assistance, such as training, mentoring, or adjustments to the employee’s duties
  • Reinforce the value of the role the employee performs.

D. Regularly monitor progress

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. Unfortunately, many managers fail to follow up.

Once you have a solution in place, make sure you:

  • Follow through with any training or other support you offer the employee
  • Regularly check in with the employee to discuss how they are progressing
  • Continue giving feedback and encouragement
  • Have a follow-up meeting at the agreed time to review their progress.

These check-ins hold the employee accountable and provide you with the chance to emphasize employee performance goals and follow through with any necessary training and support. You will also show 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 to maintain this standard of work. 

If an employee’s performance doesn’t improve after a reasonable period, you need to consider your options.

E. Act if the underperformance continues

If things don’t get better and underperformance continues, you should address this behavior sooner rather than later. Thus, the underperforming employee knows you mean business and won’t tolerate continuing issues.

The two most common solutions are reassignment or termination.

  1. Reassignment – The employee could be better for another position within the organization with different responsibilities.  
  2. Termination – When you have 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. 

Dealing with an underperforming employee is also vital to the rest of the team; those hard-working members will quickly become disengaged if they see colleagues slacking off without any repercussions. 

F. Provide feedback

Providing specific and constructive feedback to employees 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 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 make a difference in their team’s productivity.
  • Commend the employee for their achievements to increase their confidence.

G. Praise and reward positive change

Ensure that you make a point of recognizing improvement and congratulating employees when rewarding progress. A surefire method to alienate your employees is to ask for their betterment and never show appreciation for the work done to date.

Provide continuous feedback on performance and reward employees when it is relevant with financial incentives or more responsibility. Often a simple mention of “thank you” or “well done” goes a long way.

H. Encourage a healthy work-life balance

Inspiring a healthy work-life balance is one effective method that can support an underperforming employee’s progress and also prevent underperformance from occurring in the first place.

Spending too much time on the job can cause fatigue, strain, and burnout. Typically, this results in decreased motivation and lower performance levels. Encouraging employees to take their allotted time off and offering wellness benefits can help them feel refreshed and be more productive.  

How to manage an underperformer - remotely? 

As a leader, you may assume that managing an underperformer in a remote team would be more challenging (who wants to have a series of difficult conversations over Zoom?). You may be more effective in handling the situation because you have to plan and structure your interactions rather than catching up in the hallway or waiting for them to stop by when you are in the office.

Here are five tips to help remote underperformers improve their game.

1. Learn more about your employee

Ask your employees about their goals and interests, regardless of how long they have been on your team. Then, modify your management approach to match their needs.

If you’re not familiar with their remote setup and schedule, ask. Some team members may prefer strict deadlines to structure their often-interrupted workdays; others may benefit from more flexible deadlines than usual to help them deal with the additional pressures of working from home.

2. Revisit your expectations

Start by reviewing your recent statements and whether you communicate them clearly and consistently from the beginning.

Consider additional training if you suspect the underperformance comes from insufficient experience, specific skill deficits, or a lack of organizational expertise.

Even though it may be more challenging in a remote environment, it’s too risky to wait until you are back in the office to provide the support they need.

3. Level with them and be specific

You may not be in the same room, but providing constructive and pinpoint feedback is paramount. Telling a team leader to be a better listener doesn’t help them understand what they need to change.

Explain to them that when they lose focus during video conferences, the team loses trust and confidence. The feedback allows them to modify those behaviors.

4. Help them learn how to improve their performance

As much as possible, use questions to encourage them to self-diagnose  and to project into their future: “How will this experience set you up to do better in the future?”

Motivate them to reach their conclusions, rather than telling them what you have observed. Avoid micromanaging, which is a significant temptation when you want to be clear about expectations.

5. Stay in close enough contact

Remember that a remote underperformer can’t just drop in to check on things. The manager has to stay in regular touch and keep them in the loop. Don’t assume that no news is good news.

Plan regular meetings to talk about their progress. If you have asked them to keep you up to date on their progress, make clear how you want them to do that. And don’t rely only on video meetings. If you are not getting a good read on your team member’s state of mind, plan a phone call and listen carefully. The tone of their voice may give you more clues about what needs intervention.

It is not easy to work with underperforming employees, especially when you can’t sit down together and have a conversation.

Using improvement tools will strengthen not only their performance but also their relationship with you and the company, as well.

Why is it crucial to address the underperforming employee?

Underperforming employees can hurt your business in a variety of ways. 

  1. First, by definition, underperforming employees fall short of their performance expectations. They are not doing their jobs because of laziness, lack of skill, desire, direction, or focus. In this case, someone else on the team has to work overtime to pick up the slack.
  2. The second most important reason to quickly manage underperforming employees is that they can be contagious for your company culture. If one employee gets away with poor performance for an extended period, it will signal to other employees that they can do the same. Instead of cultivating a culture of high performance and productivity, your employees may slowly fall into the trap of mediocrity.

It is critical to keep an eye on the performance of each individual to avoid either of these scenarios. Although excessive micromanagement is detrimental, so is the lack of consistent individual meetings with employees to check and see how they are doing.

Summing it all up 

You need to become great at managing underperforming employees. Like anything else, managing underperforming employees will take some practice on your part before you are good at it. This management skill needs to be continually improved and, even so, things may not work out perfectly.

With a coaching mindset, consistent support, and a willingness to explore new options, you can help your underperformers improve.

That is one of the best things you can do for them and your organization.

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