Managing underperformance

Motivated staff who are well-engaged will be able to perform at their best. Conversely, if underperformance is not addressed and managed appropriately, bad habits can form and affect employee morale in the entire workplace.

Understanding the underlying reasons for underperformance and following the 5-step approach to performance management it will help promote good employee performance and improved engagement at work.

What counts as underperformance?

Underperformance or poor work performance can be displayed in some of the following ways:

  • unsatisfactory work performance, or failure to perform the duties of the position to the expected standards
  • non-compliance with workplace policies or procedures
  • unacceptable, negative or disruptive behaviour at the workplace

Reasons for underperformance

Most of the time, the reasons for poor performance tend to be one or more of the following:

  • employee doesn't know what is expected of them, because the goals, standards or consequences are not clearly conveyed to them
  • employee doesn't know how they are doing or progressing because there is no feedback from supervisors
  • mismatch in employee's capabilities and the job they are required to undertake, or employee does not have the knowledge or skills to perform the job expected of them
  • lack of motivation, low morale or poor work environment
  • cultural misunderstandings
  • interpersonal differences
  • workplace bullying
  • personal issues such as stress, family or health problems, etc.

5 Steps to Managing Underperformance

#1 Identify the problem

Depending on the performance issue, the underlying causes could range from job unsuitability, inadequate explanation of expectations from the role, to disillusionment or personal problems.

Observing the individual employee and identifying his or her specific problem is important in determining the solution.


Possible Reasons


Apathy or Laziness

  • Inappropriate job fit
  • Personal or external issues
  • Job design & content
  • Informal discussion about work and role
  • Clarify performance requirements and expectations of the role
  • Explore how to improve interest in tasks
  • Explore opportunities in other areas of business if possible
  • Refer to counselling if employee is facing personal issues

Inability to follow instructions or perform tasks as required

  • Failure to understand what is required
  • Lack of capability or skills to perform tasks
  • Discuss what is required in the role
  • Review if additional training is required if there is a lack of skill
  • Commence formal performance management process, with realistic action plans

Unwillingness to acknowledge underperformance

  • Employee does not accept management assessments
  • Issues have not been adequately addressed
  •  Re-establish expectations, using evidence to show where performance has failed to meet required standards
  • Explain the impact of underperformance on the success of the business
  • Commence formal performance management process

Inability to complete work at the required standard

  • Lacks the required skills and capabilities
  •  Identify training and development opportunities
  • Explore possibility of transfer to a different role within organisation
  • Review recruitment practices to ensure appropriate selection criteria

Bringing cynical or negative opinions to the work environment

  • Disillusionment
  • Unable to understand value of work or role
  • Establish a supportive team culture
  • Review and re-establish the role and the value of its work to the organisation
  • Explore opportunities for career progression or advancement

Regular absence without valid reason

  • Inappropriate job fit
  • Personal or external issues
  • Job design & content
  • Management style
  •  Explore possibilities for job redesign, flexible work arrangements, etc.
  • Re-emphasize expectations of attendance
  • Re-establish value of work undertaken
#2 Analyse the problem

The employer should analyse the issue to ascertain:

  • how serious the problem is (in what way does it affect the business)
  • how long has this problem existed in the workplace
  • what is the gap between expectations for the role and reality

During this time, the employer should also plan an appropriate approach to the issue, with the intention of letting the employee understand:

  • what the problem is
  • why it is a problem
  • how it affects the business, or impacts the workplace
  • why it is a concern

The employer may then arrange to meet the employee, and inform him or her in advance about the purpose of the meeting so that both parties can come prepared. Employers who adopt best practices in performance management may choose the allow the employee to bring along a support person to the meeting.

#3 Meet to discuss the problem

The employer should be clear about the direction for the meeting, and may wish to use the following approach.

  1. Discuss with the employee outcomes they wish to achieve from the meeting.
  2. Give the employee the chance to voice his point of view, explanations or any other comments.
  3. Check if the employee is aware of what is expected of them, and the gap between their performance and expectations.
  • address the issue not the person
  • listen well and be open to the causes for the issue
  • clarify and summarise to check your understanding of the situation
  • recognise the positive things, and appreciate the strengths
  • take a genuine and encouraging approach
#4 Jointly devise a solution

Where possible, engage the employee to contribute to a solution so that he or she is more likely to act on it.

A clear performance action plan should consist of:

  • a clarification of roles & responsibilities of the employee
  • expectations and intended outcomes
  • timeframe and milestones for achievements

The employer should stay positive and keep the following in mind:

  • be open to exploring ideas that the employee may have
  • emphasise common ground, identify with employee's concerns
  • keep the discussion focused and the solutions realistic and measurable
  • focus of positive possibilities
  • offer assistance, including mentoring, training, flexible work practices or redesign of roles and responsibilities
#5 Monitor performance

Feedback is extremely important, and the employer should closely monitor performance and provide timely feedback and encouragement.

A meeting should be scheduled within an achievable timeframe to review and discuss the employee’s performance, even if the issue has been resolved. This is to encourage sustained performance improvements, and alignment of employee’s goals with that of the organisation.

If performance does not improve, the company may need to consider serious actions including formal warnings and termination of employment.

Tackling performance issues in the long run

Issues of underperformance may occur in any workplace, arising from many factors that may be beyond the control of the organisation. However, to limit their impact on the business, employers can make sure that steps are in place to address these performance issues whenever they surface.

Create a work environment that is supportive of feedback
The most effective way to manage performance in the workplace is to create a work environment that is encouraging and genuinely supportive of feedback and improvement. 

Implement training for managers & supervisors
Where possible, employers should implement training for managers and supervisors or communicate expectations with them in order to equip them with the skills to better identify and address employee underperformance.

Encourage timely feedback to align performance with company’s expectations
How managers and supervisors provide timely feedback can make a huge difference to the levels of employee engagement and will help to align employee performance with company expectations.  

Address these issues early on
The longer the it takes for the organisation to address these issues, the harder it is to find a solution to them. Performance issues may grow into bad habits, breed job dissatisfaction, and have a negative impact on coworkers and overall morale at the workplace. The ability for an organisation’s managers to identify and address problems quickly also reflects a company culture that promotes communication and development.

Managing Underperformance

Understanding the underlying reasons for underperformance and following the 5-step approach to performance management it will help promote good employee performance and improved engagement at work. ...