5 Tips To Deal With An Underperforming Worker


A worker who isn’t making the grade can be crippling to a business. When everyone else on the team is getting the job done, why can’t they?

This test will push every manager to the limit at some point of his or her career, and it is often a moment of make-or-break not just for the worker, but for the leader as well. In Australia, the average business spends the equivalent of $1,118 per full-time employee on managerial time dealing with underperforming workers, according to a report from The Future Foundation, reported in The Age.

On all accounts, your employee should not be surprised by the news that they are underperforming. You need to tell them directly and immediately if they go off track, and in many cases, the worker will take this into account and solve the problem. Only an employee who continues to fail to meet standards can be considered an underperforming worker, because even the best staff members need guidance and critiquing.

From there, it’s your job to help an underperformer meet the benchmark. Once you achieve that, your job will become infinitely easier – or at least, somewhat easier.

Here are five ways to try to bring out the employee of the month in your underperforming staff member.

1. Come prepared

A common problem amongst managers – especially inexperienced ones – is coming across too lightly. It’s easy to think that a quick meeting and chat will help resolve the issues, and it’s even more tempting to angle your talk like this if you are concerned about confrontation.

Unfortunately, this appearance can make it seem like you are less serious about the message you want to get across, rather than the means.

Instead, come prepared with documentation or notes detailing exactly where the problem lies. If the staff member isn’t meeting targets, have figures ready. If they are not complying with company policy, have the policy with you. If the worker is only completing some of their responsibilities, ensure you have their job description on hand.

This leaves no room for misinterpretation, gives a clear message and shows them that the expectations are a formal agreement they are required to meet.

2. Find out the cause

If your employee hasn’t caused problems in the past but has suddenly dropped off, there may be personal reasons at play. The distraction could be only temporary, such as a house move or visitors coming to stay, or it could be a larger problem. Either way, you will need to have a confidential talk to find out if there is something you can do in a professional sense. This could be creating a schedule of more flexible working hours, days of the week to work from home, or approval of holiday leave for some time off.

Consider how long the employee has been working with the company, any internal promotions or moves they have made, and any payrises they have been given. You may quickly notice that the worker has been in the same role for years without recognition, which could mean you might consider a promotion, new responsibilities, or a pay increase. Do the research, then talk to the worker to find out if this is the case.

You might be at a loss as to why the employee is not performing, so get ready for a meeting to directly ask them why. A worker might become defensive, so make sure they know you are not there to apportion blame, but to get to the root of the problem so you can create a strategy to move forward.

3. Train

Training is about teaching someone how to do the job, and it’s about giving them new skills they can learn as they go that will be both beneficial to you and their long-term career.

A more senior staff member may agree to pair with a worker who is struggling with performance, so that he or she may learn how a successful staff member completes tasks, or simply as a mentor to go to with questions.

Supply the staff member with physical material such as manuals, going through each section to ensure the instructions are clear.

Once again, ask directly if this can be improved. Are there areas the worker would like to learn more about? Do they feel they have the appropriate knowledge and skills for the job? What are the barriers stopping them from completing the work?

4. Educate

Different to training, educating is about ensuring the worker sees the bigger picture.

Ask them if they know how their work fits in with that of their team members’, within your work, and with that of the company as whole. Show them what the company stands for and aims to achieve, and try to get hold of company short- and long-term plans.

Teach them why their work matters in a way that demonstrates the ramifications of it not being done to standard. Do this not just in a disciplinary sense, but to show what happens to the customer, how you manage the fallout, and how it makes the brand look.

5. Ask them about yourself

Make it personal – make it all about you.

You have likely made it into your position for more than just an aptitude in the industry itself, but for your leadership and people skills. Workers will naturally gravitate toward such personalities in the workplace, and you can use this to your advantage.

Take the pressure off them for a moment and ask them how you, as a manager, can help them perform. This might allow them to open up about what they think they need while framing it around someone else. Their observations could be on point and may help you read between the lines even further.

You can ask directly, send it in an email so they have time to consider their answers, or leave it as an anonymous ‘suggestion box’ style questionnaire for the whole team to fill out. You know your staff best, so you should be able to judge which method will give you the best results.

In many cases, a mix of several tips will work better than just one, and in all cases, clear goals, follow-up, and monitoring are essential. Keep records of all meetings and of any behavioural changes. Be ready to praise the worker for improvements, and be equally ready for disciplinary action should the worker not respond.

For a clear-cut managerial to-do list and other basic information about managing underperformance, take a look at the checklist from the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman as well.