Ten tips for dealing with an underperforming employee

Every manager hopes that all employees will perform satisfactorily in their roles 100% all the time, but there will be occasions when performance falls below an acceptable standard. Early action is the best policy, rather than waiting and hoping that things will improve. They rarely do, and delay just makes subsequent interventions more difficult. Val Moore from Croner has some tips.

Tip 1. What does the manager want from the employee?

It is important that managers know what they require from employees. Only then can they identify that an employee is underperforming. It is also important that the employees understand what is required of them. The basis of this should be the job description, and maybe the personal profile. These documents are not just used at the recruitment phase, but should be updated regularly, often at the time of staff appraisals and when staff take on extra duties or there are changes in the job itself.

Tip 2. Keep the first step informal

When addressing a performance issue for the first time, the best approach is to keep the proceedings informal. This is an opportunity to explore the situation and no formal sanctions will be imposed at this stage. It should be an opportunity to gather information and offer support.

Tip 3. The employee must know of the manager’s concerns

This does not happen by osmosis. The manager should have a private conversation with the employee. Make clear that this is not a formal hearing. As it is not a formal hearing there is no need to formally invite the employee with notice, nor is there a need for the person to be accompanied by a representative.

This is an opportunity for informal discussions. Allow sufficient time for the employee to relax and feel comfortable with what you are trying to achieve — ie. an understanding of any problem(s), together with possible remedial actions and support.

Tip 4. Identify the problem

Identify, by discussion, the reason(s) for the underperformance.

  • If someone has the capacity to perform better, but simply chooses not to, then that person must be told that he or she has to improve. It can often happen that an employee who has been in a role for a while just lets his or her standards slip.
  • If the employee has the ability to do the job — he or she is trying hard but is still underperforming — then steps should be taken to see how the person can best be helped to improve. Further training may be needed, or more detailed supervision, or it may be necessary to appoint a mentor who can work with the person.
  • Should the reason be medical, then it may be necessary to obtain a medical opinion.
  • If the employee has a disability (and this may have arisen since the beginning of his/her employment), reasonable adjustments should be made to the job so that the disability is no barrier to performance. It may be necessary to obtain professional advice.
  • If it is a temporary lapse, due to a bereavement, or other personal problems, then help to find suitable support may be what is required.

Encourage the employee to suggest ways that performance could be improved, rather than imposing a solution. If the employee “buys into” the solution, he or she is more likely to carry it through.

Tip 5. Make it clear what will happen if an improvement is not seen within a given period

While at this stage the matter is being dealt with informally, the employee needs to be aware that if there are no signs of improvement, it may be necessary to implement formal procedures. While these proceedings are informal, do make notes and, if appropriate, give/write to the employee with the agreed actions: to make the situation clear the letter could start: “Further to our informal meeting regarding…”.

Tip 6. Monitor

Monitor the employee’s performance during the agreed period during which improvement is expected. This may be daily or weekly, but is best done during the monitoring period, rather than just at the end, so interim measures can be taken if necessary.

Tip 7. No improvement or only temporary improvement?

Where the employee’s performance does not improve, or perhaps improves for a while and then falls back to previous levels of performance, the issue must be revisited. Have a further meeting with the employee, highlight the previous discussion and any support or help that was given. Go back to stage four and again find out what the reasons are. They may be different from those originally stated — eg during the first meeting perhaps the employee did not wish to disclose a medical problem.

Tip 8. Formal procedures

If there is no improvement, or reasonable explanation provided, then formal procedures should be considered. The process is similar to that already taken (as described above), but formal hearings should follow the provision’s procedures: the employee being invited to the hearing(s); allowed the right to be accompanied; and formal sanctions (ie warnings) given as appropriate. See also our Discipline and Grievance topic.

Tip 9. Don’t procrastinate

The manager should ensure that the matter is dealt with quickly and efficiently. These issues should not be allowed to drag on. Set timescales and stick to them.

Tip 10. Be consistent

The manager must be aware of how similar matters have been dealt with in the past: not necessarily just their own procedures, but those of fellow managers. There needs to be a consistency of approach throughout the provision. What is needed is consistency of approach, support or help given and, as appropriate, sanctions put in place.

Colin Ellis, a project manager, sums it up well.

My number one tip for managing underperformers is to be absolutely honest about what could be improved as early as possible, but be empathetic at all times. As a leader you have a responsibility to create an environment of learning and growth, not one of fear. So listen hard to the issues they face, then work with them to provide the support and knowledge to help them succeed. And don’t forget to look at yourself and ask what more you can do to support them achieve their goals.

Advice should, of course, be sought at each stage in dealing with these matters. Please call our Legal Advice Helpline from Stephensons to speak with an advisor who will be more than happy to discuss individual circumstances with you, contacts details for Stephensons are in your policy documentation or please call one of the dot2dot team for more information.