How to Identify and Handle Employee Underperformance? 5 Proven Steps

Part 1

How Can Leaders Identify Poor Employee Performance?

Here are some recent statistics related to troubling employee performance:

  • As of January 2016, only 32.5 percent of employees are engaged in the work they do. A lack of engagement can undoubtedly lead to a negative slide in productivity and performance.
  • Just 50 percent of the American workforce feels that they understand their work expectations.
  • According to a Willis Towers Watson Performance Management survey, 98 percent of respondents felt that performance management was necessary, but only 64 percent reported having an effective or very effective approach to developing a process for it.

Managers feel it is crucial to monitor and management employee performance, but many do not have the infrastructure to do this for a workforce culture whose engagement is dwindling. What behaviors can manager begin to look out for to identify poor employee performance?

Trends that can reveal low employee performance:

  • Goals and Objectives Are Consistently Being Missed
    It is impossible to always hit a target, but if a team or specific employee is regularly failing to hit a target by a large amount, then it can be a sign that something is not right.
  • Employees Do Not Adhere to Company Values
    For example, if a core value for a business is “always putting the comfortable first,” and employees do not subscribe to this by blaming customers for a mishap, then the individual is not embracing a company culture based in customer service.
  • A Lack of Teamwork
    Nothing can derail a department sooner than one or two employees who do not get along with others. Gossip, conflict, combative behavior, and a general willingness to not work with others will kill productivity.
  • Team Members Always Have to Chip In
    If an employee depends on co-workers or superiors more than they should, then leaders need to realize this is taking others away from the work they should be doing. Both parties will experience a severe lack of performance.
  • A General Disregard for Company Rules
    Absenteeism, disengagement, workplace theft, and other chronic disciplinary issues can lead to poor performance. If these are issues that continue to transpire, productivity has nothing to do but decrease.
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Part 2

These are common issues that leaders need to look out for to determine that performance is lagging. However, there are a few things leaders can do to begin managing matters like these:

  • Identifying the Cause of Poor Performance
    The above issues are common ones that hinder productivity, but they are not the only causes of poor performance. Leaders need to get to the root. This could be on the manager themselves as a result of them not providing clear expectations for employees. It could also be that the workload is too high or that the wrong person was hired for the position in the first place.
  • Creating an Action Plan
    Once the cause is found, leaders can then form an action plan to address it. This would include informing the employee of the problem and how and why their performance is considered inadequate. Then, steps for improvement should be agreed upon and laid out.
  • Monitor for a Change
    Leaders should then create an assessment and analysis schedule to meet with and follow back up with the employee about their performance. It does not end after the plan has been designed, a manager should make it a point to continue to monitor performance and step in if things do not improve.

Basically, leaders need to identify, plan, and monitor in relation to performance management issues. However, there are more nuances that leaders need to be aware of when creating a plan of action for underperforming employees.

Part 3

Handling Employee Poor Performance: 5-Step Action Plan


  1. Use Specific Examples

    As leaders are meeting with employees to create an action plan for improvement, leaders need to use concrete examples of how the employee is not meeting expectations. These should not include any hearsay from other employees or managers or gossip.

  2. Utilize Data

    To keep the situation from going into one that does not acknowledge facts, leaders should have data about their performance.
    – Are they arriving late to the office every day?
    – Is the employee missing targets by a steadily decreasing amount?
    This information should be included in the conversation.

  3. Get Employee Input

    Employees may have a reason why their performance is lacking.
    While any situation does not excuse the behavior, it can help leaders to understand better why it could be taking place, and it will reveal whether the problem is an isolated incident to a personal issue or workplace stress.

    Knowledge such as this can help leaders know if the behavior is likely to continue.

  4. Work Together to Figure Out a Solution

    Once the cause of the low performance has been identified and discussed, leaders and employees should partner to determine a plan for improvement. Together, the pair can develop incremental steps that lead to maximum growth.

    During this phase, leaders need to be clear with employees about their expectations going forward.

    For example, if an employee is showing up late to work, managers should determine if the answer is either to change the workday start time or demand the employee begin to arrive at work on time depending on the circumstance.

    If the problem relates to hitting a goal, then a plan should be developed that addresses ways the employee can begin to meet the target.

  5. Revisit Progress Toward the Plan as Needed

    Two benchmarks related to time should be developed that both the employer and employee can agree upon:
    1) A set amount of time that the problem should be fixed. (This could be immediately or over the course of a few weeks or months depending upon the issue.)
    2) A time when both parties can meet again to assess how the employee is meeting the new standards.

It is not always easy to confront an employee about behaviors that are leading to underperformance. However, these conversations are many times unavoidable, and leaders have to have a plan for having a dialogue with employees, so they do not become overwhelmed with emotion or forget the point of the meeting.

It is also helpful for leaders to have the following useful tips in mind:

  1. Make Sure All Is Right On Your End

    Before confronting employees about a breach of agreement, leaders need to make sure they have correctly conveyed the information necessary for employees to thrive: if leaders are not clear in their expectations or have given confusing directions, then employees are not to blame.

    Therefore, it is crucial that leaders keep track of all communications and correspondence with workers to make sure they have just cause in confronting them about an action plan for improvement.

  2. Always Keep a Trail

    This relates to the first point, but it is a lot easier to dialogue with employees about their performance if leaders are keeping consistent notes about their progress, and saving all correspondence concerning project directions or company policy.

    Sometimes, an employee handbook can serve as this paper trail, but leaders should also keep track of any emails they have had with the offending employees.

  3. Keep Emotions Out of the Conversation

    Anger is a normal human reaction when expectations are not met.

    However, nothing can be gained from turning the tide into an emotional situation. The conversation will drift to everything but a solution.

    So, it is essential that leaders do not enter the conversation with anger or allow themselves to be goaded into one.

  4. Make Employee Engagement a Priority

    Performance can be lacking due to a severe dip in engagement.
    As stated earlier, nearly 70 percent of Americans are not engaged at work, so managers need to make employee autonomy, creativity, and training a priority, also focusing on establishing a culture that promotes upward and downward feedback.

Click here to check the most extensive collection of performance feedback examples – 2000+ Performance Review Phrases: The Complete List

Productivity can make or break an organization. Therefore, employers need to make sure they are monitoring how workers are performing and creating plans to allow them to do the jobs they are assigned to do.