Paper Trails

Helping underperforming employees

Helping underperforming employees

Every business hopes to have their employees produce results at their optimum level. While that should be a goal of every business, it is usually not a realistic expectation. Therefore, business owners and managers must be aware of each employee’s performance and train those that are underperforming. Let’s take a look at how businesses can work on helping underperforming employees.

Why do employees underperform?

First, a business must review their employees’ performance and identify those underperforming employees. Once the business determines which employees are producing inadequate results, they must look for potential reasons on why this is happening. There are many reasons why an employee may be underperforming in their role. Some reasons for under performance could include:

  • lack of necessary skills
  • unclear expectations
  • low incentive to perform
  • obstacles inside of your organization that prevent people from completing their assignments or completing work on time

There could be a combination of the above factors that would need to be addressed before employees could routinely do their best work. Consequently, while your performance management process should have some consistency to avoid any discrimination against protected classes, it also needs to be complex enough to account for a multitude of underlying issues. A good performance management strategy effectively corrects subpar performance because it enables employers to diagnose the cause of that performance and prescribe remedies that address it.

Helping underperforming employees

While there are endless reasons your employees may be underperforming, let’s take a look at a few more common scenarios and how businesses can help.


  • New employee who is not meeting expectations
  • Good performer in a slump
  • Star performer who could do even better
New employee who is not meeting expectations

Sue has been on the job for three weeks, but she keeps missing deadlines and leaving tasks unfinished. These are most definitely performance issues to address right away, but how you should address them will depend on why she is not getting her job done. Two possibilities for this could be her lack of ability or a lack of training.

First, if Sue does not have the skills you thought she did, you are within your rights to terminate her employment. If there was an honest misunderstanding about what she could do, then training along with a performance improvement plan (sample below) might be the better alternative.

Secondly, it is possible that Sue did not receive the proper training in the first few weeks in your organization. She may not have been shown how to do the job or given adequate time to learn. Alternatively, your expectations may not have been clearly communicated. In both these cases, in addition to training or communicating expectations to Sue, it would be prudent to review your orientation and onboarding practices to ensure that all new employees receive the resources they need to succeed in your organization.

Good performer in a slump

Nick used to be one of your best employees. Nick would consistently surpass his goals and encourage dedication and hard work from his colleagues. Recently, Nick’s performance has started to slip. He’s been showing up late, missing meetings, requesting more days off, and failing to complete all his tasks on time. The quality of his work has suffered as well, and other employees have taken notice.

Nick’s manager must first figure out what is going on. Nick’s job duties have not changed and he clearly has the required skills and abilities. So, either something is preventing him from performing as he once did or he is choosing to perform poorly. Either way, Nick’s manager needs to address his performance.

It could be that some personal issue is affecting Nick, and if so, he may have certain rights under state and federal law. An illness in the family, for instance, could entitle him to protections like paid family medical leave, depending on the circumstances. A disability might entitle him to a reasonable accommodation under The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These rights must be kept in mind when working with him to improve his performance.

Another possibility is that Nick is bored in his role. Think about another role within your organization for him. If there are no career development opportunities at your organization, then it may be time for him to work elsewhere, and he would likely be happier for it. In any case, be sure to make it clear to Nick that his performance has not been satisfactory and that he needs to improve it if he wants to stay employed.

Star performer who could do even better

Sherri is probably your best employee. You have never had cause to complain about her performance. Nonetheless, you feel that Sherri could do better than what she has been doing. She is great relative to most of your team, but she seems to be underperforming relative to what you believe to be her potential.

Clearly Sherri does not need a performance improvement plan, but working with her on her performance could be a benefit to you both. A lot of star performers, no matter their profession, have a personal mentor who pushes them to excel, propels them to met higher goals, and holds them accountable. Having someone take on this role would give you an even greater advantage over your competitors and set Sherri up for greater success in her career.

Remember to reward her improved performance! If Sherri were to feel like you are reaping all the rewards, she might be inclined to take her developed talents elsewhere.

Best Practices for helping underperformers

When you are evaluating an individual performance, the key is not to make assumptions about what is causing poor performance. Instead, investigate why the performance is what it is. In many cases, the issue resides fully or mostly with the employee themselves. They will either need to make improvements or find a better fit elsewhere. In other cases, however, the root cause of poor performance lies outside of the employee’s control and improving performance may require structural changes, accommodations, or new challenges.


In any event, you should begin by informing your underperforming employees that their work is not meeting expectations. Ask them to explain why they are struggling to perform their job duties. Their answers should help you learn the underlying issues and what you may need to do to address them. As always, documentation and following your company handbook is key. Document what you have discovered and how problems are being addressed. If you ultimately decide to terminate, solid documentation will only help.