Underperforming Employees

Underperforming Employees

In an ideal world, every employee gives 110% every time. Management and HR never have to intervene, and business is steadily conducted as usual. As wonderful as that world sounds, we all know it’s not reality, and sometimes, even the most valued employees fail to meet expectations.

What are the markers of an underperformer and how does it happen? Read more to find out.

It Takes Two

The telltale signs of an underperformer are pretty simple, but the “why” behind the missed deadlines and disengagement, is not.

Far too often underperformance is attributed to pure laziness when truthfully there’s often more to the story. As a manager or member of HR, it’s our job to identify the root cause of underperformance and create the path to correction, whether that’s a new strategy or termination. Hopefully, an intervention with the employee prevents the latter and a new strategy provides the employee with the steps to overcome roadblocks.

Research in the Harvard Business Journal suggests employees and managers have different views of what makes a good performance. From our own perspective as HR experts, we know that too often, companies lose the people element of their human capital and ultimately, HR and management’s reputations pay the price. Focusing only on numbers and tangible equity, like money or ROI, can break trust between management and employees, and at worst, make HR seem as a watchdog for the company and not a resource people can and should use when struggling.

Correcting underperformance is a group effort that requires patience from management and a willingness to improve from the employee in question.

Correcting underperformance is a group effort that requires patience from management and a willingness to improve from the employee in question. Click To Tweet

Types of Underperformers

According to a presentation for the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability by Marti Harkness, current Chief Legislative Analyst for The Florida Senate, there are three types of underperformers:

Hiring mistakes

People who are bad fits for the job and don’t have the capacity to fulfill their job role.


The employee doesn’t have the proper training or know-how to complete their tasks but has the capacity.


The employee has the skills and ability to complete tasks but is disengaged or disgruntled.

Each of the three types of underperformer must uniquely be addressed. An employee who doesn’t want to do their job is vastly different than one who wants to perform well, but can’t because of a lack of training. Similarly, a disengaged employee is something that happens over time. Addressing why the employee is checked out or unhappy has the potential to turn the employee back into one who meets expectations.

Harkness proposes identifying underperformers early and addressing them with specific requests for improvement. Rather than merely telling the employee they’re underperforming, he suggests adjusting language to convey what the employee needs to improve on.

Rather than merely telling the employee they’re underperforming, Harkness suggests adjusting language to convey what the employee needs to improve on.Click To Tweet

For example, notice the contrast between saying something like, “You’re doing a bad job,” and “We’ve noticed you’re struggling with completing projects on time and need you to improve on your time management skills.” One places blame without telling the employee how to adjust, while the other highlights specifics areas and creates a path to improvement.

Harkness also notes the significance of factors outside the employee’s control that could contribute to underperformance, such as a change in supervisor, their workload, or the team dynamic. Furthermore, non-work related life events like mental illness or death in the family could also be contributing factors that have to be considered.

Underperformers don’t have to be a drain on resources and time. Working with the employee to create a plan to address deficiencies is the most efficient way to turn around a poor performance.

Make a Plan

Increased supervision, mentoring, honesty, and evaluations are all valuable tools in an individual’s development plan. A pat on the back and acknowledging a job-well-done doesn’t hurt, either.

Making time for a struggling employee, rather than showing them the door, is key to improving underperformance and decreasing costly turnover while making employees feel valued.

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