Know your HR: What to do about an underperforming employee

Authored by Charlie Lawson.
6 min read
Men Hands Consultation
Bosses often find it tricky to deal with an employee who isn’t performing well. But if you don’t take action you are letting them, and your whole team, down says HR expert Viv Foster.

Let’s be honest, you know when somebody isn’t doing their job well. Perhaps it’s that sinking feeling you get when you see their work. Or you find yourself keeping them away from certain clients or not asking them to do as much as their colleagues. It could even be that you are not getting on with your own job, because you’re doing some of their work for them.

You might be surprised at how often I have conversations with managers who are in this situation. You might be even more surprised by how often these conversations are with experienced, successful people, who would never tolerate underperformance in any other aspect of their business. But when I ask them does this person know they’re not doing their job well enough, their answer is often a sheepish: “Ummm…well…probably not.” Or they say: “Well, they should know!” as if an employee should have some form of ESP to pick up on their boss’s unhappiness.

So, what stops those managers from tackling underperformance in their teams? These are the responses I hear most frequently:

  • “I don’t want to upset him/her.”
  • “It’s a legal minefield to get rid of somebody isn’t it? I’m worried about the consequences.”
  • “I just don’t have the time to deal with it right now.”
  • “They might not be doing the job brilliantly, but at least they’re doing the job. I can’t afford the risk of their performance getting even worse if I say something.”

You can choose to tolerate underperformance. But in doing so, there will inevitably be consequences.

Firstly, that person will not be given the chance to address their problems. Their underperformance could be tackled – but only if they know there’s a problem in the first place. You are letting them down, as well as your team or business, by not being honest with them. They might have the capability to be a great employee, if only you were to take the time to help them.

Secondly, the sooner you have the conversation the more likely you are to fix it and do it without resorting to a formal disciplinary process. As soon as you spot a problem, get involved and speak to that employee – chances are you’ll fix it and get that person performing to a higher standard. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets and the greater the impact on the performance culture of the team.

Thirdly, other team members usually recognise when a colleague isn’t pulling their weight. As leader you set the performance culture in your team. You need to ask yourself who is most comfortable in your team: the top performers, those who are cruising along, or, worse, those who aren’t performing up to scratch. Keep in mind what you think of people who tolerate weak performers – that’s what others will be thinking about you.

Finally, if other businesses, or other team managers, are better at addressing underperformance than you, they are more likely to outperform you.  Your business or team will never realise its full potential unless you ensure that every team member is doing a great job.

So, take a deep breath, and make a resolution. Do. Something. About. It. Here are my top tips:

1. Do your Prep

Be absolutely clear about what the problem is. Get feedback from others if it is relevant to do so. Be ready to explain specifically, and clearly, to that person what the gap is between what you expect to see and what you currently see. Use real examples and focus on the consequences of the individual’s underperformance.

2. Know what you expect to be different

To stop underperformance you must set a realistic action plan to help get the person up to the level at which you need them to perform. So prior to speaking to them, make sure you are completely clear on what is ‘good’ performance, and be ready to put in place specific, stepped goals to measure their progress towards that.

3. Deliver the message

You should always do this face to face. If this is the first time you have spoken about it with the individual, then balance compassion with directness. It is important that they understands that there is a problem; but you may not know what the reasons are for their underperformance, so you need to use empathetic questioning and listening to explore what they might be.

This first meeting should not be a formal disciplinary meeting – unless you have something serious like misconduct or dishonesty on your hands (which is beyond the scope of this piece). That said, it’s still important to keep a written record of the conversation and agreed actions, and share it with the individual.

4. Agree a plan and stick to it

It is vital that you agree an improvement plan with the individual.

  • How do you want them to perform, and by when?
  • Be specific (e.g. “You will run your portfolio of clients to the customer service levels we have agreed, so that I receive nothing but positive feedback from them by July”).
  • Be clear about the support will you give them  (e.g. ”You will attend a customer service skill course, and be mentored by John Smith.”)
  • Set milestones (e.g. “We will meet every two weeks to discuss your progress, and I will ask for regular feedback from John Smith and your clients”).

5. Review regularly

Your aim is to improve performance, and in plenty of cases this is what happens. But always keep in the back of your mind the question of what happens if nothing improves. By regularly reviewing their performance, providing them with lots of honest, timely, specific feedback, documenting and sharing everything as you go, you put yourself in the best place to be able to act swiftly and safely from a legal perspective, if you need to.

What happens next?

By following the above steps, I usually find one of three things happen:

  1. The individual is helped to develop into a good performer and you can step back from closely managing them once you’re sure it’s a long-term improvement.
  2. The individual begins to realise this role might not be the right one for them and makes the decision to move elsewhere. I have often found this brings a sense of relief for that person, and their departure can feel positive, rather than negative, for them.
  3. The individual does not improve, meaning you have to move into a formal performance management process, possibly resulting in their exit from your business. If you do end up here – and, in my experience, if you have worked hard with them to address their problems, this isn’t often the outcome – then having gone through the above steps should enable you to act swiftly, as long as you follow your own performance management process to the letter.

Underperformance happens in every business. But prevention is always better than cure. After reading this blog, ask yourself: “Does every person in my team know what I expect from them, and are they performing up to my expectations?” If you think the answer is no, it’s time for you to have some honest conversations with your team.

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Charlie Lawson

Having spent 4 years at Hiscox, Charlie is a Development Underwriter for Hiscox Direct Commercial. Her responsibilities include underwriting, products and pricing to our customers directly, both online and via our customer experience centre. Previously, she worked for the Hiscox Broker channel in London and has also spent time in the claims and finance teams, as well as being seconded to underwrite in the San Francisco office.