Underperforming Employee: Effective Strategies for Improvement

By July 26, 2023Assessments

In today’s competitive business environment, organizations must have employees who perform to their full potential. It can be frustrating when employees underperform and disrupt production and morale.

Employee performance issues must be addressed quickly before they distract from the company’s success.

To effectively manage underperforming employees, it’s necessary first to identify the signs of underperformance. Understanding the causes of these issues is the next crucial step, as it enables leaders to take an informed approach to addressing performance problems.

Developing a performance improvement plan, supporting employee growth, and continuously monitoring progress is essential to managing underperforming employees, ultimately benefiting both the individual and the organization.

Identifying underperforming employees

Employee underperformance can result from various factors and often manifests as a failure to execute duties per expected standards or demonstrating disruptive and negative behaviors. Leaders and managers must take appropriate measures to address this issue and support employee growth.

Recognizing underperforming employees

Underperforming employees often exhibit certain behaviors and characteristics that can indicate poor performance. These signs can include:

  •   Consistently missing deadlines or not completing tasks on time.
  •   Producing low-quality work that doesn’t meet the standards of their team or the company.
  •   Receiving negative feedback from colleagues or supervisors about their work or behavior.
  •   Demonstrating a lack of engagement or enthusiasm in their tasks or the workplace as a whole.
  •   Frequently needing assistance or additional supervision to complete tasks.

Managers need to recognize these indicators to address employee underperformance effectively and guide team members toward improved performance.

Evaluating employee duties

To properly identify underperforming employees, it’s crucial to establish clear and objective performance standards for each employee and person’s role. Performance standards should meet the company’s overall goals and objectives. They also should be measurable, attainable, and relevant.

Some steps to evaluate employee duties and performance standards include:

  1.   Review job descriptions–Ensure that each employee’s job description accurately outlines their key responsibilities and expectations.
  2.   Develop key performance indicators (KPIs)–Establish specific, quantifiable KPIs that measure an employee’s effectiveness in their role.
  3.   Monitor performance consistently–Regularly review and assess an employee’s performance against their KPIs and job responsibilities.
  4.   Communicate expectations clearly–Ensure employees understand their performance expectations and how their work contributes to the company’s goals.
  5.   Provide ongoing feedback–Offer constructive feedback to employees on their performance, emphasizing areas where improvement is needed.

By taking these steps, managers can effectively gauge the performance of their team members and address employee underperformance when necessary.

Understanding the causes of underperformance

Addressing employee underperformance is essential for maintaining a productive and healthy work environment. It is important to approach the issue with a confident, knowledgeable, neutral, and clear tone.

As a manager, it is critically important to identify the causes of an employee’s underperformance and to identify and implement appropriate strategies to help improve employee performance.

External factors

Employees may face external factors that negatively impact their performance, such as personal issues and unexpected life events. These factors can make it difficult for employees to focus on their work or manage time effectively. This will lead to stress and possibly burnout for the employee and their teammates.

Additionally, a lack of resources or support from external sources, such as technological tools or assistance from colleagues, can impede an employee’s ability to perform at their best.

Internal factors

Internal factors, such as an employee’s lack of knowledge and skillset, can also contribute to underperformance. If an employee needs to gain the knowledge or skills needed to complete a task, they may find it difficult, if not impossible, to meet expectations and achieve their goals.

Another factor may be boredom. A lack of variation in job tasks can lead employees to lose interest in their job and decrease motivation, ultimately affecting performance levels.

Work Environment

The work environment plays a significant role in employee performance.

A poor workplace climate can be characterized by inadequate communication, high levels of stress, and frequent conflicts among team members. In such conditions, employees may feel overwhelmed, unsupported, or undervalued, causing a decline in overall productivity and job performance.

Management issues

Management-related issues are another crucial factor in employee underperformance. Some common management issues include:

  •   Poorly defined goals or expectations–If employees are unclear about their objectives, they may be unable to focus their efforts effectively, leading to underperformance.
  •   Insufficient feedback–Employees require regular feedback to understand their strengths and areas for improvement. A lack of feedback can hamper an employee’s ability to develop and grow.
  •   Inadequate resources or support–Workers can struggle to perform tasks optimally when managers do not provide the necessary resources or support.
  •   Ineffective leadership–An unsupportive or overly controlling management style can create negative working conditions and contribute to employee underperformance.

By addressing the underlying cause of poor performance, employers can work to create a more supportive and productive work environment that fosters career growth and enables employees to reach their full career potential.

Addressing performance issues

One of the first steps in addressing underperformance is to provide clear feedback to the employee, highlighting areas in their work ethic in which they need to meet expectations. Open communication and constructive discussions help both parties understand each other person’s perspectives and establish goals for improvement.

Conducting one-on-one meetings

One-on-one meetings offer a valuable opportunity for managers and employees to discuss performance issues. By regularly conducting these meetings, managers can establish a comfortable setting where open communication can occur.

It is essential to set a positive and collaborative tone in these one-on-one meetings, allowing both parties to have an honest and non-confrontational conversation about the employee’s performance.

When conducting one-on-one meetings, the manager must create a supportive environment. The employee needs to feel heard and understood to speak openly and improve. The manager should ask open-ended questions to encourage employees to express their thoughts and concerns.

This more candid conversation could reveal underlying difficulties previously unknown to the company or manager.

Providing clear and constructive feedback

Clear and constructive feedback is a crucial component of addressing performance issues.

Managers should provide specific, actionable feedback directly related to the employee’s work. This will enable the employee to identify areas for improvement and take appropriate steps to remedy the situation.

Managers should avoid using vague or ambiguous language to ensure that the feedback is properly received.

Managers need to maintain a neutral and objective tone when providing constructive feedback, avoiding personal or emotional language.

This helps to promote a healthy and professional manager-employee relationship in which the employee feels respected and is encouraged to improve.

Setting achievable objectives

Establishing realistic and attainable objectives is an effective way to manage performance issues.

Managers should work closely with the employee to define clear performance goals and expectations. These goals should be based on measurable outcomes and aligned with the company’s objectives.

In setting these achievable objectives, managers should consider the employee’s current abilities and skill set, ensuring the targets are within reach. This consistent approach will help the employee improve and allow the manager to monitor progress and provide appropriate support as needed.

Regularly reviewing these objectives ensures that the employee stays on track and maintains a clear sense of their priorities.

By addressing performance issues through one-on-one meetings, providing clear and constructive feedback, and setting achievable objectives, managers can effectively support underperforming employees on their path to improvement.

This approach fosters a productive, respectful working environment that benefits the employee and the organization.

Developing a performance improvement plan

Developing a performance improvement plan (PIP) effectively addresses underperforming employees and guides them toward success. This section will focus on two key aspects of creating such a plan: establishing timelines and milestones, measuring progress, and adapting the plan.

Establishing timelines and milestones

The first step in creating a PIP is to set specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals for the employee.

These goals should be directly tied to their job responsibilities and performance areas that need improvement. Collaborate with the employee to ensure that they understand and agree to these objectives and key results.

Once the goals are set, establish the timelines and milestones by which the employee can measure their progress. This should include regular check-ins with the employee to discuss their progress, possibly on a weekly or monthly schedule. Check-ins should also be used for more significant milestones, such as the successful completion of a project or an improvement in a specific skill set.

Measuring progress and adapting the plan

Regularly monitor the employee’s progress throughout the PIP, using the established timelines and milestones as benchmarks.

Use the goals and objectives as the basis for evaluating their performance improvement. Keep communication lines open, inviting feedback from the employee and providing constructive criticism and guidance.

As the plan progresses, be prepared to adapt and adjust the goals and objectives based on the employee’s development.

If they achieve specific milestones ahead of time or encounter unforeseen challenges, recalibrate the plan accordingly. This ongoing review and adjustment process keeps the PIP relevant and ensures continuous employee performance improvement.

A well-designed performance improvement plan, with clear objectives and milestones, is a valuable tool to help underperforming employees enhance their skills and abilities, resulting in improved performance and success for both the individual and the organization.

Supporting employee growth

Managers should create an action plan to support the employee’s development. This plan may include additional training, mentoring, or adjustments to the employee’s current workload amount. Regular check-ins and progress evaluations can ensure that the employee stays on track and continuously improves.

There may be times when managers have to address issues within the team as a whole. Underperformance may also reflect inadequate resources, unrealistic expectations, unclear expectations, or a lack of teamwork. Therefore, assessing the broader context and making any changes necessary to support the team’s overall success is crucial.

Identifying and leveraging strengths

One key aspect of employee growth is to identify and leverage their strengths. By recognizing an individual’s strengths, managers can better align them with the right tasks, projects, and roles.

Managers need to provide regular feedback and acknowledge the areas where employees excel. This approach boosts their confidence and fosters a positive working environment, ultimately lifting team morale.

Use performance assessments to find training opportunities

Performance assessments help managers evaluate employees’ skills and capabilities, providing valuable insights into their areas of improvement. By analyzing the results of performance assessments, managers can identify specific areas in which employees may require additional training, support, and coaching.

Learn more about True Ability—the world’s most sophisticated platform for performance-based certification and assessment, which can be customized to deliver convenient, scalable, and accessible exams.

Enhancing skillsets through training and development

Regular training and development programs enhance an employee’s skill set. By using these strategies, companies will ensure that their workforce remains up-to-date with the latest industry trends, tools, and techniques.

Employers should offer various training options for employees to choose from, such as workshops, webinars, or courses, and encourage employees to obtain additional education or certifications in their fields. They should also create mentoring relationships.

Mentoring relationships that engage employees will help cultivate confidence, motivation, and the development of new skills. As an extra benefit, development will boost morale and engagement overall.

Monitoring progress and adjusting approach

Managers should pay attention to the performance of their team members and consistently measure it. These measures should include evaluating the quality of work, productivity, and compliance with company policies and procedures.

Monitoring progress regularly can help identify and address underperformance early on, allowing for necessary adjustments to be made.

One way to effectively measure performance and compliance is by setting clear expectations and using objective metrics to evaluate progress. Establishing a review system that supports open communication and feedback is also crucial, fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Celebrating success and acknowledging improvements

Positive reinforcement is an essential part of leadership. When a team member shows improvement or reaches a milestone in remote work or personal life, a manager must celebrate their success and acknowledge their progress. This positive feedback can be done through verbal praise, rewards, or public recognition within the team.

By openly appreciating improvements and successes, a good manager also encourages an environment that promotes motivation, engagement, and a sense of accomplishment among team members. This can lead to a higher-quality output, increased productivity, and greater compliance with company standards.

The benefits of addressing employee underperformance

Addressing employee underperformance is crucial for maintaining a productive and healthy work environment. By identifying and addressing these issues early on, managers can create a more supportive atmosphere and prevent further decline in performance.

  • Improvement of employee output—Improving an employee’s performance will improve their productivity and output quality.
  • Encouraging accountability—Employees who are aware that their actions and results are being monitored are more likely to stay on track with their goals and responsibilities, leading to better decision-making and a stronger sense of ownership in the company;
  • Preserve resources—By addressing performance issues early, managers can save time and effort that might otherwise be spent dealing with the consequences of poor performance.
  • Positively impact team morale—Underperforming employees demoralize and frustrate their teammates, who must pick up the slack. By addressing this issue, managers show that they are committed to ensuring each team member is pulling their weight, thus promoting a sense of cohesion and motivation within the whole team.

Preventing underperformance

Setting clear expectations from the start

An effective onboarding and hiring process is crucial to minimize underperformance in the workplace.

It is essential to communicate work policies, clear goals, and expectations from the start so employees understand their responsibilities and the performance standards they must meet. This will help reduce confusion and frustration as employees tackle the learning curve in their new roles.

  • Onboarding Process—Ensure a comprehensive introduction to the organization, team, and individual roles.
  • Work Policies—To avoid misunderstandings, communicate company policies, including attendance, communication, and project management.
  • Clear Goals—Set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals to effectively guide employees through their tasks.

Promoting a healthy work environment

A healthy work environment that prioritizes work-life balance significantly contributes to an employee’s overall job performance. Employees can maintain high productivity and job satisfaction by emphasizing a healthy work-life balance and positive workplace culture and providing the necessary tools and resources.

  • Work-life balance—Encourage employees to balance their professional and personal lives, supporting breaks and time off when needed.
  • Tools and resources—Provide employees access to the appropriate tools, training, and resources for their job, ensuring they can perform their tasks efficiently.
  • Healthy work culture—Cultivate a supportive atmosphere that values teamwork, cooperation, and open communication.

Adapting management styles to different employee needs

Recognizing and adapting to different employee needs is essential for managing performance effectively. A one-size-fits-all management style may not resonate with every employee, so adapting to various working styles and providing personalized guidance can significantly enhance their performance levels.

  • Employee-Centric Approach—Understand each team member’s unique strengths and weaknesses to tailor your management approach accordingly.
  • Flexibility—Be open to adjustments in the working style, schedule, or method, depending on individual employee needs.
  • Regular Feedback—Provide constructive feedback in a timely manner, praising achievements and addressing areas for improvement.

By proactively addressing potential underperformance through setting clear expectations, promoting a healthy work environment, and adapting management styles, organizations can foster an atmosphere that empowers and enables employees to achieve their full potential.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should a manager do if their team is underperforming?

If your team is underperforming, look at possible internal and external factors. Investigate and address team performance issues, such as communication, resources, or leadership. If necessary, speak to your teammates privately so they are more comfortable bringing up potentially difficult subjects.

How do I help an underperformer who thinks they’re doing well?

One of the challenges in this situation for many managers is addressing the mismatch between the employee’s perception and their actual performance. Providing clear, specific feedback can help bridge this gap. Encourage open communication and ensure the employee understands the performance expectations and goals.

At what point should you discipline or even terminate the employee?

Terminating an underperforming employee should always be regarded as a last resort. However, managers must be prepared to take further action if the underperformance continues or persists after offering support and addressing underlying issues. This may involve disciplinary measures or, in some circumstances, a termination process. Preparing for these outcomes is necessary to maintain a healthy work environment for all employees.


Effectively managing underperforming employees is a crucial responsibility for managers. Through clear communication, actionable support plans, and strong teamwork, managers can help their employees improve and contribute positively to the organization.

Remember, managing an underperforming employee requires patience, empathy, and a genuine desire to help them succeed. Maintaining open communication, providing necessary resources, and giving the employee a fair chance to improve before considering more severe actions are essential. Additionally, involving HR or higher management in the process can provide additional insights and support in managing the situation effectively.

Jodi Mai began her career as a recruiter after college. She moved into an HR Generalist role and later, into HR management, working on such topics as employee relations, benefit administration, and payroll. Over the last 15 years, she has worked in the talent acquisition and management industry, and since 2018, Jodi has expanded to HR consulting and writing on HR and recruitment topics.

Learn more about TrueAbility—an industry leader in providing assessment testing and has experience offering testing, certification, and training to companies, such as Google, SUSE, VMWare etc.

About TrueAbililty

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