Taking Action on Underperforming Employees by Tori Sutton

Taking Action on Underperforming Employees by Tori Sutton One minute […]

March 11, 2021

Taking Action on Underperforming Employees by Tori Sutton One minute […]

Taking Action on Underperforming Employees
by Tori Sutton

One minute you think your employee is doing great … until they aren’t. So what’s next?

In this issue of the Pulse, we share three tips on how to turn around an underperforming staff member.


Ken Ross – Schooley Mitchell



In a perfect world, our workplaces would be filled with rockstars. Every employee would be positive, highly productive and well-suited to their current position. However, we know our world is far from perfect.

If you’ve been in a leadership role for long enough, you’ve no doubt encountered an underperforming employee. Sometimes it’s a slow decline – you notice someone slipping. Sometimes it flies under the radar and rears its ugly head at the worst possible moment. Either way, turning the situation around can be one of the toughest tasks to tackle.

An underperforming employee is rarely a one-size-fits-all circumstance, which can make getting things on track downright tricky. Some companies have processes in place but they aren’t always effective.

“When you talk to senior executives, they’ll usually acknowledge that those don’t work,” professor and author Jean-Francois Manzoni said, in a Harvard Business Review interview.

Here are three key items to keep in mind when formulating your plan to deal with the situation.

It’s Not Just Them – It’s You Too

When confronted with an underperforming employee, it’s natural to place the blame squarely on the individual. After all, they’re not pulling their weight. This has nothing to do with you … right?


While it might be instinct to place blame, we should instead pivot inward, taking the time to self-reflect. Ask yourself if there are ways you may have contributed to the matter at hand. What role did other members of management play, or even the company itself? Have expectations been clearly defined?

“You may have contributed to the negative situation,” said Manzoni. “After all, it’s rare that it’s all the subordinate’s fault just as it’s rare that it’s all the boss’s.”

This information gleaned from the exercise can identify where things have gone wrong, which in turn can help you plan to get the employee back on track.

Be Positive and Empathetic

Taking the aggressive approach may seem like a good way to get your point across but it usually fails. Instead, approach the matter with sensitivity. By communicating with empathy, the employee will be more inclined to take what you’re saying to heart without becoming defensive. That doesn’t mean you should sugar coat or play down their underperformance to lessen the blow – tactful honesty is definitely needed to turn the situation around.

Also be careful not to focus in solely on the employee’s mistakes or negative traits. This sometimes sets the stage for failure, resulting in a cycle of undesirable behavior: the set-up-to-fail syndrome.

It occurs when attention and strict guidelines are imposed on an underperforming employee. In turn, the employee becomes defeated, unmotivated and begins to doubt themselves. The job performance – and relationship with management – continues to spiral until the employee quits or is fired.

How these situations are handled can be the difference between creating a culture of fear, or one of continual learning and growth.

Prevent the Problem

Engagement plays a key role in performance, and if you are noticing consistent issues with staff, your human resources process may be to blame. Things such as a lack of applicable skills or confusion surrounding the job role (or business itself) can be linked to how you hire or onboard your employees.

Re-examining and restructuring these policies – along with re-evaluating the problem employee’s aptitudes and personality – can ensure future hires are well-suited to the position and corporate culture. By selecting the wrong candidate for the job, or failing to train them properly, you could be setting them up for failure.

Keep in mind these are just three areas of focus– a truly comprehensive approach will likely include several other strategies. At the end of the day, sometimes things just won’t work out despite your best efforts.

However, it’s important to remember that turning around an employee who is on the wrong path is hard work – but it can definitely be worth it.


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