Underperformers: It's time to have that conversation you've been avoiding

It’s no fun dealing with an employee whose work is just not up to scratch. But unfortunately, it’s one of those things that needs to be addressed – and it’s a case of the sooner the better for everyone involved.

How to spot an underperformer

  • The nice guy (or girl)

We’ve all worked with this person. They’re so lovely. But no one will vouch for their work. They simply don’t perform the duties of their position to the standard required. But they’re just so nice …

  • The square peg

Sometimes people are simply not cut out for the job they’re doing. It could be that they’re in the wrong industry or simply the wrong type of job.

  • The rule-breaker

Workplace policies, rules, procedures: this person doesn’t seem to realise they apply to them too, or even that they exist.

  • The person everyone avoids

Whether it’s inappropriate comments, bullying behavior or harassment, this person has a bad reputation. They’re the one you don’t want to be stuck in a lift with or end up next to at the Christmas party.

  • The disruptor

It may be the era of disruption but affecting others through disruptive or negative workplace behaviour is one thing that’s definitely not trending.

Handling the problem: individual approach, standard procedures

If you’ve got a few of these personalities in your workplace, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Every situation is unique and should be dealt with on an individual basis. There’s no one size fits all response when handling underperformers.
  • It’s important to document any discussion or action you take in writing.
  • Many managers will need support to develop the courage and willingness to manage these issues.
  • It’s crucial that you put clear procedures around how to handle the situation.


How to start a conversation with underperformers

Step 1: Identify the Problem

Get specific about the problem and have a clear understanding what drives performance or underperformance within the workforce.

Where does the problem lie? Is it the job content and design? Is management style to blame? Is it just a poor job fit? Does the problem revolve around personal or external issues?

Step 2: Arrange a private meeting

Organise a meeting with the employee to discuss the problem. Depending on the situation, you may want to allow them to bring a support person to the meeting.

Make sure the meeting is held in a private, non-threatening and comfortable way. Be specific and provide examples when explaining your concerns.

Step 3: Give the employee an opportunity to respond

Everyone deserves a right of reply. Give the employee an opportunity to respond to what they’ve heard from you before considering the appropriate action.

Step 4: Develop a resolution plan

Where an employee’s personal circumstances cause their performance to suffer, refer them to things like professional help or counselling. 

Work with the employee to develop a solution. Clearly communicate thow they need to improve and the consequences for not doing so.

Step 5: Review

Schedule follow up meetings to review performance against the plan you’ve agreed on. There’s no hard and fast rule to the number of meetings that will be appropriate.

Step 6: Follow up and give feedback

Continue to monitor performance and provide feedback – whether good or bad.

Step 7: Ensure compliance

You need to consider what action you will take if the employee’s performance remains unsatisfactory – more training, demotion, transfer or dismissal? Discuss these things with the employee.

If termination becomes the only option, follow relevant steps set out in any applicable Industrial Agreement, policies and procedures or employment contract.

If you employ less than 15 people, you’ll also need to familiarise yourself with the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code (available through the Fair Work website [link: https://www.fwc.gov.au/about-us/legislation-regulations/small-busin...]).


If you’re having trouble building up the energy or courage to confront an underperformer, remember this: the longer that poor performance is allowed to continue, the more difficult a satisfactory resolution becomes. 

Views: 2357

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on April 5, 2016 at 9:32

Much has been written about performance management and it seems that communication continues to be the linch pin as to whether or not it works.

Unfortunately, there is a perception that when there is a need to communicate with an employee, the end result will be a complaint of bullying.  Whilst these situations might be the exception rather than the rule, establishing basic rules or guidelines about performance manement and assessment/appraisal is essential.

It seems that whilst organisations will have performance management and appraisal policies and procedures, in some cases, it all becomes too hard to address 'underperformers' or even those engaged in counterproductive workplace behaviours.  Given the number of Court, Commission and Tribunal decisions being made where performance management processes and those who use them are being criticised, it seems that there is an increased need to consider the risks associated with communication.

One has ask the question "What does it take to make a person an underperformer?"  They may will the categories identified above and there may be many reasons for this.  It might be that they don't understand 'the rules of engagement' i.e. what it means to work in this organisation, what is expected of them, how they are expected to work, how their work performance will be measured/assessed, and even what it means to work in a team.  In some cases, the work environment may contribute to perceptions that they are an underperformer.

Whilst there may be a perception or a belief that a person is an underperformer and there may be a temptation to terminate their employer, sitting down and discussing those perceptions and beliefs are important.  Jumping to conclusiion can lead to hasty (and regrettable decisions) not to mention some with a high financial impact.

People are individuals so what appears as underperforming to one, can be a sign that a person needs help in a number of areas.  For me, understanding the Ladder of Inference is important as this can help structure and frame a plan to address 'underperformers'.

In reality, dealing with issues of performance or even the characters identified above is time consuming and costly.  However the costs of not dealing with can be more costly, both in terms of financial costs and reputation.

If a manager or supervisor has these type of situations to manage and they lack certainity about how to approach the person, they need to seek professional advice or support so they can manage the risks associated with their encounter.  They cannot and should not defer action because they are 'afraid' they will be the subject of a bullying complaint.

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