How to manage poor performance at work

Are you finding that individual team members are performing less well than you had hoped? Perhaps a top performer has recently gone off track? Managing poor performance at work can be challenging and confronting for both employees and employers. However, poor performance needs to be addressed quickly before it gets out of hand. The alternative – managing someone out of a business can be expensive, litigious and isn’t fun for anyone.

In this blog, we cover helpful tips on addressing poor performance, how to turn it around, and even how to avoid it in the first place.

Tip 1. Establish what the performance issue is

The first step in tackling underperformance is establishing what the performance issue is. It might seem obvious, but without clarity on what the issue is at hand, you will not be able to address it.

The FairWork Ombudsman highlights the following ways that underperformance or poor performance can be exhibited in the workplace:

  • Unsatisfactory work performance, a failure to perform the duties of the position or to perform them to the standard required
  • Non-compliance with workplace policies, rules or procedures
  • Unacceptable behaviour in the workplace
  • Disruptive or negative behaviour that impacts on co-workers.

Other factors to consider are:

  • The severity of the problem.
  • How long the problem has existed
  • How wide the gap is between what is expected and what is being delivered

Tip 2. Meet with the employee to discuss the issue

The next step would be to arrange a meeting in advance with the employee so they can prepare and understand the purpose. This should be carried out somewhere in private where there will be no interruptions. The employee should be offered a support person for the meeting.

Preparation is key. Any evidence of poor performance at work should be prepared in advance to present during the meeting. This could take the form of emails, documents, performance reports or evidence tracked using a performance management system like Actus Software. Having a clear audit trail is important for providing evidence to the employee of their misconduct.

The meeting should be well structured by the manager and describe the issue in specific terms so there is absolute clarity: what the issue is, why it is an issue and how it impacts the workplace.

It is very important that the meeting is based on facts and not judgements and is led using a coaching style. This should be an open discussion, not a telling off!

One example provided by the Harvard Business Review is:

‘You’re not responsive,’ which is vague and doesn’t outline a clear path for change. It also feels like a personal attack on the employee.

Instead, you could tell them: ‘I’ve noticed you haven’t responded to half my emails, and it has taken a week for you to respond to three others.’. They can then make a connection between their behaviours and your expectations.

Furthermore, the employee should have the opportunity to have their point-of-view heard and duly considered. It may be possible to balance out the conversation by also talking about the positives so that the employee feels recognised and appreciated.

Importantly, during the meeting, the reason for the issue needs to be explored.

Tip 3. Discuss what the reason is for the underperformance

We have outlined below a number of reasons why an employee may not be performing as they should in the workplace. Getting to the route cause of the issue is essential for devising a solution to turn performance around.

Poor performance at work

Reasons may include:

– The employee does not have the knowledge or skills to carry out their job effectively
– Lack of understanding as to what is expected of them as goals and objectives have not been set or are not clear
– An employee is unaware of their performance due to lack of feedback
– Workplace bullying/discrimination against
– Working with ineffective or outdated tools to carry out their work
– Personal issues such as family stress, physical and/or mental health issues
– Cultural misunderstandings


Tip 4. Devise a solution to turn around poor performance

Whatever the performance issue is, it is important that the employee feels supported by their manager. By holding an open and honest conversation with them, it will be much easier to come up with a solution to the problem together.

A clear plan of action should be established and this could involve strategies for training and career development, including timeframes for improvement or clarifying roles and responsibilities.

This is not about establishing a plan of action and then going back to business as usual with no further consideration or discussion!

For example, a manager may contact I.T. and have a system updated to resolve an employee’s issue with using an outdated, ineffective tool. However, without checking in with them to ensure they have got to grasp with the new system, have received sufficient training on it, and feel supported, performance improvements are likely to be slow, if at all!

What’s important is to set up regular one-to-ones and performance reviews using an effective performance management system to show to employees your continued support and to get them back on track.

This will also provide an opportunity for employees to receive regular, quality feedback, that is specific and behavioural, to help improve performance

Tip 5. What to do when staff performance does not improve

We would hope that by following these tips performance would improve over time. However, there could be an occasion where it does not and this can be detrimental to your business. A written warning may need to be issued or a formal disciplinary process that could result in dismissal. For guidance on the topic of fair dismissal, the CIPD provide a useful guide: dismissal procedures in the UK.

Tip 6. Avoid poor performance at work in the first place

Dealing with underperformers can be a real challenge and one that we discuss further in our white paper here. The impact can be far-reaching, especially amongst smaller teams. It can lower staff morale and impact overall business performance. This is a topic we have covered in another blog: how to improve business performance.

The best way to avoid issues in the first place is to ensure that regular one-to-ones or check-ins are taking place between line managers and employees. That way employees will feel supported and have the opportunity to discuss any concerns before they become problematic.

A good performance management system is essential for conducting these regular performance management activities and to avoid underperformance in the workplace. We cover this topic further in our blog: how can a performance management system help prevent underperformance?

Watch our short video below on dealing with underperformance using the CISS Model…


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