Employee underperformance is tough on a business, a team, and often the employee. But there are things you can do to turn it around. Sometimes the person needs extra tools or support. You may even be doing something to hold them back without realising.
If a worker isn’t performing as well as you expect, it’s good to explore the reasons why. Some managers turn to employees first, but the best managers consider all possible causes. What seems like underperformance in a role could have more to do with the role itself, or the way your business runs, than the person working in that role.
When an employee is underperforming, turning their performance around is a great outcome. It’s expensive and time-consuming to find the right new person and get them going in the role. If you can improve your worker's performance, that's better for you and for them.
Below are some tips and tools to help you make sure neither you or the business is holding the employee back. There’s advice you can use to better support them in their work.
This page lays out key things to think about and steps to take when figuring out whether you have an underperformer in your team. If you do find a problem with employee performance, it will help you understand what to do before you consider a formal performance management process.
Sometimes roles and descriptions aren't quite right. If the role doesn’t reflect what you’re asking your employee to do, it’s tough for the employee and doesn't help your business. Well-considered role descriptions can be the difference between a high-performing team and a team struggling with performance.
The role description needs to be:
If the role description isn't fair and accurate, you should consider revising it with the agreement of the employee. Jobs can change and evolve over time, and big changes need to be built into the role description.
You can adjust role descriptions with the agreement of the person in the role.
Sally works on a factory line, filling soda bottles. Her role description says she should fill and cap 2,000 bottles a day, but the average across the team is 1,000 a day.
Sally has also been asked to help out in the lab when they are short-handed, doing quality assurance testing on the product. That's not in her role description though, and requires a really different skill set.
With these two things in mind, the job description is neither fair or accurate — she can't do 2,000 bottles a day, doing quality assurance on the product is a different skill set to bottling, and doing QA on the product isn't mentioned in the job description. With Sally’s agreement, her manager should rewrite the job description to realistically reflect her targets and tasks. Her performance is not the problem.
To build her skills and motivation, Sally’s manager should consider training her in the soda QA process. This would also provide better long-term performance for the business.
Setting clear expectations helps keep your business on track and your workers focused. It’s important to be very clear about what you expect. Maybe your employee doesn't know what you need them to do, how you need them to do it, and by when.
Without that, it could look like the person is underperforming when they don’t have the information they need from their manager. Or it could be a simple case of misunderstanding or miscommunication on your part.
Use this worksheet to help set clear expectations when briefing staff.
When you need a job done and ask someone to do it, there may be times when the task is beyond that person’s capability. Being reasonable about what you ask workers to do is the first step toward keeping them motivated and your business humming.
Great business leaders help their staff develop skills with a balance of tasks they can complete easily and tasks that challenge them to grow. Tasks not being completed may have less to do with a worker underperforming, and more to do with you expecting too much of them given the role you've hired them to do.
If you have been asking more than what a person in this role should be expected to do, you'll need to re-evaluate. If possible, talk to others who have worked in this role or similar roles, or to people who have managed someone in a role like this before, to get an informed idea of what’s reasonable.
Barry is at university studying business. He has a summer job as a general hand for a landscape gardener, Terry.
Barry's agreed duties include carrying bags of compost, digging where Terry tells him to, and planting trees where Terry tells him to. One day, Terry asks Barry to jump into the truck and back it up a very steep hill to where Terry is waiting.
The truck is huge, and heavy with soil. Barry has never driven a truck like that before, let alone fully laden, backward, up a steep hill. Barry explains this to Terry, and says he isn't confident. Terry says to do it anyway because some clients are waiting at another site and there is a rush to get to them. Barry tries, but ends up rolling down the hill and straight through the fence they'd spent three days building.
While Barry has made a mistake, it isn't fair for Terry to call this underperformance — it was too much to expect of a general hand for a landscape gardener, unless he had additional capability in that area.
Good communication is important, and feedback is essential. The best managers encourage good performance by helping their team evolve in the right ways. How can someone change their behaviour or improve if you don't tell them what they're doing well and not so well? You need to point out the areas you see as underperformance, and help them figure out a better way.
Use this worksheet to give motivating feedback and help shape behaviour.
Some qualifications or skills are conditions of getting the job. Others are more related to the role and/or the way your business does things.
If someone seems to be underperforming, it might be they haven’t received all the training they need. This could be as simple as showing them how you like things to be done. Think about buddying them up with someone else at work to show them the ropes.
Your employees may not automatically be capable in the areas you need them to perform in — you might need to offer support. Build training into your business strategy to help you know when and how to provide support.
Mere works in a specialist vinyl store with her boss, Sanjay. Customers have been coming in to the shop to say they haven’t heard anything about albums they ordered months ago. Sanjay follows up on the complaints. He figures out Mere was the person who received the delivery each time, and she never let the customer know it had arrived.
After speaking with Mere, Sanjay learns she hasn’t been trained in the customer order process. Sanjay remembers he meant to show Mere through the process but training was overlooked because the store had been so busy when she started.
Sanjay books a time for the training, and is on hand to help when Mere handles her next customer order. Once she is familiar with the ordering process, Mere never misses a customer order again.
Sometimes underperformance in a role is caused by challenges that employee may be facing in their personal life. Without making any assumptions of what they may need or want in terms of support through a tough time, share these tools with them to help them decide how much of their personal challenge they want to share with you, and what (if any) adjustments could be made at work to support them through a difficult time in their life.
One of the best things a manager can do to encourage great performance is make sure workers have the tools they need to do their jobs well. Sometimes people can’t perform to the standard you expect because they don't have the tools they need.
Some things are obvious — a builder needs a hammer. Other things are a bit harder to know — maybe they need a certain piece of equipment or software you don't know about.
Listen to your employee. Find out if a lack of the right tools is standing in their way, or perceived to be standing in their way. You might need to get them the tools, or show them how they can work without them.
When a problem seems linked to an underperforming employee, it’s good to think about whether your business structure is contributing. This means reflecting on the number of people in your team, what those people are responsible for, and whether the roles they’re working in set your business up for success.
What looks like an ineffective team member could be someone performing well in a role that is no longer serving your business goals. If that's the case, you should consider a restructure.
Sometimes restructuring means reducing the number of people employed in your organisation. But it could also mean rewriting job descriptions, training an employee to take on a different role, or aligning roles more closely with your business aims.
To help figure out if a role isn’t serving your business well, try a simple gap analysis. Write down:
Is there a gap between what you want to get from this role and what your business is aiming for? If yes, you might need to change the role to suit your goals. This could mean restructuring.
If the role and your business goals already line up well, it’s possible the employee is underperforming in the role. It’s also possible the employee isn’t being properly supported to perform well — be sure to consider the way you’re leading your staff when looking into underperformance.
Jared owns a plumbing business. He has always had two people — Ralph and Will — doing his invoices and banking, and he suspects Will is underperforming. Will often seems unoccupied, checking his personal email and looking on Facebook, while Ralph is getting on with his work.
When Jared looks into the issue, he realises the move to online accounting and a better job scheduling system means there is no longer enough work to employ two admin staff.
Jared suspects Will appears to be off-task because the work he used to do no longer needs doing. Reluctantly, Jared considers restructuring. He calls his business mentor for advice on the best way to approach a business restructure.
Anahera owns a small bakery with a team of six employees. The business has a drop in revenue, and Anahera gets frustrated that her delivery driver Brendan often seems to be standing around with nothing to do.
She figures out she can make the bakery more profitable by using a delivery service instead of employing Brendan as a driver.
Brendan has been a valued part of the team since Anahera first started the bakery, and she doesn’t want to lose him. Anahera talks with Brendan, explaining the position the business is in. She mentions her hopes to grow the bakery’s list of suppliers, and finds out Brendan is interested in developing his sales skills.
Anahera creates a new sales assistant position, and offers the job to Brendan. The relationships and interpersonal skills Brendan developed as a driver, along with his knowledge of the business, help him excel in the job.
Under employment law, all interactions and agreements between employers and employees are underpinned by good faith. If you're confident you're doing everything you need to do to support your employee, in the ways outlined above, you have a decision to make.
If the person is a good cultural fit, and has good skills in other areas, you might want to find them another role in the team. If so, you'll need to check they want to stay and they agree to you revising their employment agreement. And you'll need to tread carefully as there are some employment law factors to consider here.
Make sure you understand the legal requirements around how to restructure fairly.
Otherwise, it's probably time to start formal performance management, including creating a performance management plan. Use this checklist to follow the correct process.
There are some steps you need to go through, and you must approach this in a fair and reasonable way. This page on formal performance management will help.