Tips for managing underperforming staff

If you’re an employer who is concerned about the underperformance of your employees, there is a huge amount of guidance that you can turn to when in doubt. The techniques of a Chinese motivational trainer who beat eight underperforming employees with a stick, shaved the heads of the men and who cut the hair of the women is definitely not the way to go. On a training weekend, the lowest ranking staff were bought up on stage and publically humiliated when the trainer demanded explanations for their underperformance. He then continued to beat the staff, a training model he says he has “explored for many years”. The whole event was captured on video and circulated on social media worldwide, drawing heavy attention and criticism. One user commented “Since when does beating employees become a way of raising performance?’, and we couldn’t agree more.

We are frequently asked how underperformance should be managed or disciplined. Often, it’s not as simple as having a quick one-off discussion but requires employers to articulate the performance issues and then follow a performance management process. Performance issues are a touchy subject and whilst the conversation may be uncomfortable, the situation needs to be addressed promptly to avoid them becoming more serious over time. Poor management techniques are counterproductive and it is unlikely an employee will be motivated to change their ways if the process is not handled with understanding, sensitivity, and care.

Identifying the underlying reasons for underperformance is the best starting-point for getting staff back on track. Common reasons include the employee being unsure of what is expected of them; misunderstanding of the task at hand; low motivation or even a mismatch in skill set and job design. Many employees particularly struggle when there is a lack of direction or feedback from their employer and are unaware they are underperforming until it is too late and they are facing termination of their employment. It may be that a worker with an otherwise shining performance record is going through a temporary personal problem which is affecting the standard of work produced  Either way, two-way communication plays a big role in finding out the cause.

Developing and implementing an appropriate performance management process is crucial in steering underperforming employees in the right direction. Once the reasons for the underperformance are addressed, it is best practice to plan a meeting with the employee to discuss their performance issues and how it is affecting the workplace.  In the meeting, give examples of the gaps between what they are doing and what is expected of them. Jointly setting goals and putting in place a performance improvement plan (PIP) is also recommended. This allows the worker to walk away from the meeting with greater clarity of future expectations. However, an official warning should be issued to caution employees that ongoing underperformance will not be tolerated. After the meeting, continue to monitor performance and remember to provide feedback. Recognizing and rewarding improved performance will go a long way in motivating workers to continue along their newfound path.

If performance issues continue, there may come a time where you may have to let them go. In that case employers must ensure they follow unfair dismissal laws including the Small Business Unfair Dismissal Code if they have less than 15 employees. 

Lessons for employers

·        Ensure that your employee’s know what is expected of them and the consequences if their performances begin to drop below the standard.

·        Review your company policy on dealing with underperformance and ensure the procedure is one that is fair and allows for a reasonable time period for performance to improve.

·        Remember to monitor your employees on the job, give direction and provide feedback after task completion.

·        If a performance management meeting is needed, provide honest and constructive feedback. All comments should be delivered with sensitivity to ensure employees do not become disheartened or discouraged. Reiterate that this is not the end of the road and to keep striving for improvement.

·        At times the situation can be bought back to a poor person/organizational fit. All recruitment and selection processes should be reviewed to ensure that the person you’re hiring is the right one for the job.

·        If a business does not have a process in place for managing underperformance, employers are advised to follow FWA’s best practice procedure.


Employers have a responsibility to let their staff know when they are underperforming so they can fix the problem. After all, how is a worker supposed to know their performance is an issue if they are not told? When dealing with underperforming staff, employers are advised to identify the root of the problem and then follow a performance management process.

Andrew Bland


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