How to Address Underperformance


If someone in your team is underperforming, it can be a delicate subject to broach. You may not know the reason they’re not working to their usual standards, or as hard as everyone else. Perhaps they’re struggling with personal problems, or suffer from mental health issues. It’s therefore important to give the matter some thought and preparation before setting up a meeting or informal chat. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve provided some guidance below.

What is Underperformance?

Underperformance can be a difficult thing to judge. Everyone works in slightly different ways, at varying speeds, so you can’t really compare two members of the same team. You need to look at each person individually, and determine whether their performance at work has changed. For instance, they could be:

  • Submitting poor quality work
  • Missing deadlines
  • Failing to keep to their set targets
  • Not fully supporting their team

When you do start noticing these signs, it’s tempting to look the other way, and hope the issue resolves itself. Unfortunately, that can mean the individual continues to underperform, and could even lead to a dismissal. The trick is to offer support at the right time, so you don’t lose a valued member of your team.

Is Underperfomance Different From Misconduct?

The simple answer is yes, though one might lead to the other. As mentioned above, someone who is underperforming isn’t meeting the accepted standards, while misconduct is inappropriate behaviour which goes against the company’s HR policies. So the former could be submitting work late, while the latter might be someone being consistently late to work.

Common Mistakes When Handling Underperformanace

Dealing with underperforming colleagues is challenging, so it’s hardly surprising that many companies don’t handle it in the best way. We’ve listed three common mistakes below:

1. Leaving the Problem

In some cases, underperformance will be a short term issue, and you won’t need to intervene. But it’s better to err on the side of caution, and address the problem early on. The longer you wait, the more likely the underperforming will escalate, potentially leading to a dismissal. You would then have to rehire for that role, which would require a lot of time and resources.

2. Not Identifying the Cause

If you make assumptions about the cause of underperforming, the issue may not be fully resolved, even if you offer support. You may then face the same problem again later down the line. You therefore need to have an open discussion with the person not meeting targets, to get to the root cause of the problem.

3. Not Offering Enough Support

Even if you successfully identify the reason behind underperformance, not offering enough time or support can lead to the same outcome of a dismissal. This isn’t fair to the employee, and could even result in legal action for unfair dismissal.

How to Handle Underperformance at Work

There’s no single way to deal with underperforming employees – each instance will be different and will have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. However, there are three basic steps that you should follow every time:

1. Understand the Cause

The first thing you should do in regards to underperformance is learn the reason it’s happening. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the individual know what is expected of them?
  • Have they been given any feedback about their standard of work?
  • Have they been provided with the appropriate training and resources?
  • Is the person happy in their role and career progression?
  • Are you aware of any personal circumstances that might affect their work?

Try to be as objective as possible, and if you’re unsure of the answer to any of the above questions, ask! Have a chat with the team member that’s underperforming, and make sure you’re both on the same page.

2. Create an Action Plan

Once you’ve discovered the cause, the next step is to create an action plan to improve your colleague’s performance at work. Try to do everything in your power to support them, so that there is no need for further action, and similar issues won’t arise.

It’s sensible to work with the underperforming individual to create an action plan, as they’ll probably have the best idea of the areas in which they need support. Some of the steps could include:

  • Additional training and refresher courses
  • Regular feedback from a manager
  • Extra support for mental health issues
  • Flexible working arrangements
  • A comprehensive Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

In terms of a PIP, this is a formal document set out by ACAS, which outlines performance issues and the targets an employee needs to meet. There should also be a timeline – if this is not kept to, formal action or a dismissal could be the next step.

3. Set Up an Appraisal Process

Neither you nor the employee following the performance action plan will want to go through the entire process again. So it’s essential that you put measures in place to prevent similar issues reoccurring. This means a regular appraisal process, for every member of staff. These meetings should clarify:

  • What’s expected of each employee
  • How someone can progress within the business
  • Who to speak to regarding issues, performance feedback, and future plans

If you don’t already have an appraisal process in place, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people are underperforming! This is something that every business should set up, no matter how big or small. And if you are seeing performance issues, it may be time to reevaluate your appraisal process – you may need to have more frequent meetings, for instance, or a written document for staff to refer back to.

Overall, underperforming doesn’t have to be a huge cause for concern – you just need to address the issue quickly and offer immediate and long term support. And if you’d like further advice on training and supporting staff, we’d love to hear from you!


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