5 Steps in Managing Underperformance in the Workplace

One of the greatest challenges in managing employees is dealing with underperformance. But you don’t have to let problems get to the point that an employee who’s not getting the job done receives reprimands or is fired.

A highly valuable skill that you should cultivate in your managing is being able to turn underperforming employees into satisfactory—or even exemplary—performers.

With this skill, you can spare the organization the considerable cost of firing one person and hiring another. And when employees see their struggling colleagues being encouraged to grow rather than being cut loose, they perceive the loyalty involved and are more likely to be loyal in turn.

The following five steps can help you address underperformance in a way that strengthens the company as a whole—before a problem becomes untenable.

1. Set clear expectations and match employees to the skills required. 

A performance problem often results from company and/or employee uncertainty about what the job entails. If you have input into hiring, you can help prevent this problem by stipulating job requirements that are as precise and clear as possible.

Exact job specifications will not only assist in the hiring process by allowing candidates to be specifically evaluated on their ability to do what’s required, they allow you to document exactly what the expectations are, so there will be no confusion in your managing or in their understanding of the job.

2. Conduct performance reviews. 

Underperforming employees sometimes aren’t even aware that they’re not meeting expectations. Performance reviews should be held for all employees on a regular, periodic basis, and these reviews are an ideal time to call the underperformance to the employee’s attention.

But don’t treat the review as a “report card.” Rather, it should be an honest, two-way dialogue on how to improve performance.

Ask questions such as:

  • What do you think the expectations are?
  • Are you aware of the areas where you’re not meeting expectations?
  • Are there specific problems you’re having that can be addressed, such as inadequate equipment?
  • Are there parts of the job you simply can’t do because you don’t know how or aren’t able?
  • Are you having problems with coworkers that are hindering your work?

When discussing problem areas, don’t be vague or use generalizations that could be taken personally. Speak about specific problems and specific actions that can be taken to correct them.

For underperforming employees, you’ll need to document exact performance goals and state in writing what the consequences will be if those goals are not achieved. But also documented should be the action plan to achieve those goals, including necessary support from you and other resources in the company.

Protecting the company from continued underperformance by “drawing a line in the sand” about what will be tolerated is only one aspect of managing underperformance—the ultimate goal is to motivate and empower employees to become productive members of the team.

3. Provide necessary training. 

In many cases, performance problems are a result of an employee being unprepared for the job. This may be because the employee was hired without the necessary skills, or the job may have evolved.

In these lack-of-skill cases, training is essential to correct the underperformance. Your role in managing this training will be to budget for it, to advocate for additional funds if necessary, and to stipulate what the training should be and how much of it the employee needs.

4. Install a mentoring program. 

In a mentoring program, employees are matched with someone more experienced within the company who can help the employee learn the skills and attitudes needed to do the job. A mentor can seek to inspire a passion for the work in the employee, as well as continually be on hand for encouragement and advice.

A solid mentoring program can turn underperformers into stars, and you can help facilitate the program and/or be a mentor yourself.

5. Encourage a sense of ownership. 

Many employees are just “earning a paycheck” and have no real excitement about the company, its vision, or its opportunities—nor do they see themselves as an integral part of the enterprise.

Performance reviews, training, and mentoring can help an employee see that their job is important and that their contribution is valued—helping to build a “sense of ownership”—but there also needs to be a collaborative, “we’re all in this together” philosophy that’s perceivable throughout the company, starting at the top.

With underperforming employees, the spark to motivate positive change is often simply an attitude adjustment, so work hard to get them to see that their success and the company’s success are intertwined. Do so with respect and with a genuine plea for them to take “ownership” of their role in the company, and you may be shocked at the performance turnaround.