Various challenges on or off the job can lead an employee to underperform. But what exactly is an underperforming employee?
“Underperforming” can mean different things, depending on the employee’s potential. For high-potential employees, average performance equates to underperforming. For average potentials, poor performance equates to underperformance. So, consider whether the employee is living up to their potential.
We’ll explore the effects of underperformance on the whole company. Then, we’ll discuss strategies for addressing this serious issue.
Table of Contents
The Impact of an Underperforming Employee
The saying “You’re only as strong as your weakest link” holds true: Underperforming employees can hold back the entire team’s success. Managers spend a quarter of their working hours managing underperformers—roughly 10 of 40 hours per week. This also means that high performers may not be getting the support they need to reach their highest potential.
Managers and teammates may spend substantial time fixing an underperforming employee’s mistakes, too. They must also shoulder more work of their own to overcompensate. Other employees can burn out from having to pick up the slack.
Morale can plummet when one team member remains disengaged during meetings and collaborations. Over time, workplace culture can suffer greatly as team enthusiasm plummets. Talented people may then leave the company because of underperforming employees.
Signs of an Underperforming Employee
Let’s review some common signs of underperformance. In some cases, an employee may have begun displaying them more recently. Conversely, they may have been occurring over the long term. In either case, work to address the issue as soon as you spot it.
Common signs of an underperforming employee include:
- Poor quality of work
- Frequent lateness or absenteeism
- Poor communication with team members
- Missed deadlines
- Lack of enthusiasm
For example, an employee who engages in behaviours like these is probably underperforming:
- Not completing tasks on time, which holds up team projects
- Not checking in with team members about questions
- Ignoring team members’ emails or clients’ phone calls
- Meeting deadlines but producing low-quality work
- Taking three hours to complete a task that used to take one
- Spending a lot of time on social media during the workday
Our 9-box grid can help you identify low, high, and average performers. This tool will help you compare performance against potential. Plus, it will help you assess which employees need the most support—and what type of support they need. If an employee falls into the category of “low performance” and “low potential,” reassignment or discharge could be the best option.
Causes of Employee Underperformance
Often employees aren’t underperforming due to a lack of skills. After all, you hired them for a reason. Rather, underperforming employees might be facing internal or external obstacles like these:
- Lack of awareness of their skills and potential
- Burnout due to stress or overwork
- Poor organisational culture or interpersonal issues
- Struggles with working remotely
- Confusion about expectations or role
- Challenges with work/life balance
- Physical or mental health challenges
- Personal circumstances, like having to care for an aging parent
- Lack of recognition for their efforts
Any of these factors can cause performance to slip. In many cases, performance declines from a combination of them.
Replacing an underperformer takes an average of 42 days and incurs substantial expenses. So, managers should let go of an employee only as a last resort. First, they should work to manage and coach the underperformer, as we’ll discuss next.
How to Coach and Manage an Underperforming Employee
Let’s explore how to support and motivate an underperforming employee. In many cases, these steps can help an employee fully meet or even exceed expectations. Most importantly, approach the issue with a positive attitude and a belief that the employee can improve.
Define the Problem
In what specific ways is the employee underperforming? Create a list of points to address. Note when each of them started occurring. Have they always been an issue for that employee, or did they begin at a certain time? Or is the employee a recent hire—in which case, confusion about role or expectations might be occurring?
Consider the type of signs you’re noticing, referring to the list above. For instance, does the employee normally communicate well, arrive on time, and display a positive attitude but poor work outputs? The problem here may be a lack of the right support or a poor job fit. The employee doesn’t lack motivation or the right attitude toward work.
Instead, she needs help with building the right skill set.
If, however, the employee has demonstrated a high level of skill in the past, but now lacks enthusiasm, burnout may be the issue. The employee could be overworked or overtaxed—either on or off the job.
In other cases, the employee may perceive a lack of opportunities for advancement. If you’re not nurturing the employee’s growth, having career conversations, or sharing promotional opportunities, that could be the problem. Over time, it can cause motivation—and performance—to wane.
Investigate the Problem
Get context that shows why the employee is underperforming. Work to uncover the root causes, like the obstacles presented above. What support and training does the employee need? Or, why has the employee been experiencing burnout? Have a candid conversation with the employee about the causes of underperformance.
You may have conjectured about what is happening, but ultimately, you can’t draw conclusions without the employee’s input.
Of course, you don’t want to pry too deeply into their personal life. But you can ask if there are any reasons why their performance has changed. The employee can then decide whether to volunteer such information (and how much detail to provide). You can then work together to make a plan for addressing the issue.
For instance, say the employee mentions that he’s been struggling with health issues. You can then modify his workload as needed. Or, if he’s struggling with remote work, you can build more opportunities for interaction into his schedule, or more structure.
In extreme cases, consider whether paid or unpaid leave would be appropriate. Other accommodations may be necessary for dealing with physical or mental health challenges. “Mental health issues that affect personal behaviors may invoke the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” asserts the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
“If an employee is experiencing challenges in these areas, the employer may have an obligation to engage in the ADA interactive process by asking the employee how the company could help him or her meet the essential functions of the job.”
Assess Expectations and Priorities
Does the employee clearly understand expectations and goals? Have the employee write down the three most important tasks they handle each week. Also, write down your own understanding of the employee’s top three responsibilities. Then, examine and discuss gaps between your answers, as SHRM advises.
Share the criteria for success in their tasks and projects, too. If they’re completing assignments but doing haphazard work, perhaps they don’t understand these criteria.
Share In-the-Moment Feedback
Whenever possible, share feedback in the moment (and in private, unless it’s positive). That way, the employee will better understand the desired behaviours. They’ll also know how their current habits and actions are affecting others. Focus on how to improve current behaviours, pointing toward solutions.
Ask the Right Questions
Ask questions related to the working environment (e.g., working remotely or on a hybrid team). Also, ask about career goals and how they may relate to current performance. For example:
- “Has working remotely been challenging for you? Can you tell me about that?”
- “Do you feel this job is still a good fit for you? Or have your personal goals and dreams changed?”
- “What are your best qualities? How can you draw upon them more in this role?”
- “What skills do you need to develop more to excel in this role?”
- “What motivates you to do your best?”
Thoughtful questions like these will help you have authentic conversations with low-performers. They serve as a jumping-off point for creating an effective plan.
Empathise and Inspire
Share stories about how you’ve overcome your own challenges. Such stories can emphasize that success is a journey, motivating employees to start from wherever they are. Talk about a time when you struggled to believe in your ability to achieve a goal. How did you persevere? What outcomes did you accomplish?
Use Performance Management Tools
Performance management software can help an underperforming employee to get back on track. Moreover, it can help avoid performance issues to begin with. These tools boost motivation by showing people their goals and progress at a glance.
Using these tools, managers can also track any issues more clearly, seeing exactly when they began. This can help reveal why issues are happening.
Create a Performance Improvement Plan
Developing a performance improvement plan (PIP) is a crucial step for a chronically low performer. It can provide valuable guidance while also documenting the issue at hand.
Don’t expect miracles to occur overnight. Instead, set the underperforming employee up for small wins—milestones on the road to success. If the employee has trouble meeting deadlines, come up with a specific percentage of improvement you want to see each week.
You may expect to see them go from turning in 50% to 60% of assignments on time in the first couple of weeks. Then, they could aim for 75% in the following two weeks.
As you put your plan into motion, have frequent check-ins with the underperforming employee. Check in two or three times per week about progress. Touch base with them daily to address any questions and concerns. Also, keep HR up to date about the employee’s PIP and progress.
Have Career Conversations
Remind the employee of the pathway to advancement through regular career conversations. This will boost motivation to excel in their current role. Discuss steps taken toward goals and how this supports the achievement of professional milestones. When the employee is performing well, share opportunities for promotion.
Nominate the employee for appropriate opportunities, too.
When to Transfer or Discharge an Underperforming Employee
If you’ve taken the above steps and haven’t seen the desired progress, consider a transfer to a different role. Importantly, only transfer an underperforming employee if a new role seems like a better fit. Otherwise, you’ll just be kicking the can down the road for another manager.
If a transfer isn’t an option, you may need to let the underperforming employee go. Make sure you’ve documented the reasons for doing so thoroughly. HR and the employee’s manager should do this in collaboration with one another.
Help an Underperforming Employee by Setting the Stage Early
Work to avoid hiring an underperformer in the first place. Check references thoroughly and offer above-average compensation for a talented candidate. But if an employee who seemed like a good fit becomes an underperformer, work to address the root causes. Help them work through any obstacles to regain motivation.
By doing so, you’ll help them become a fully contributing member of the team once again.
Want to learn how performance management software can ramp up motivation? Demo our product!