The best way to address poor work performance with employees

Written by: Michael Scheiner | Illustrated by: Officevibe
Updated on: Published on: December 10, 2020 |  Reading time: 6m

There are always unpleasant parts of a manager’s role, chief among them: addressing poor work performance on your team. As uncomfortable as it is to broach the subject of underperformance it’s a manager’s job to have these difficult yet formative discussions.

We have concrete steps to help you deal with underperforming employees: tips for preparing to address the poorly performing employee, how to handle the discussion, and what to do afterward.

What is poor work performance?

Poor performance at work is mostly tied to the job’s tasks and responsibilities, but can also refer to an employee’s behavior within the team. By definition, poor work performance happens when an employee’s performance is below his goals or expectations. Sometimes performance issues are unintentional and can be fixed with solid guidance, while other forms of poor work performance reflect deeper issues such as disengagement and how the employee feels about their job.

Job-related– Making mistakes
– Missing deadlines
– Mixing up instructions
– Neglecting instructions
– Ignoring deadlines
– Not responsive to feedback
Behavior-related– Too loud
– Over chatty
– Accidentally late
– Rude to teammates
– Disrespectful to management
– Leaves early

How to address poor work performance successfully – with examples

Try to address poor work performance sooner rather than later. Talk to your employee in your next one-on-one meeting rather than waiting for a performance review meeting 3 months away.

Here are some examples of how to discuss poor performance with your employees.


Reflect on the part you played

Ask yourself some reflective questions to see where you might be responsible. If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, good for you for looking at yourself and being honest. This will help guide the discussion you have, which may be more of a reassessment of the employee’s workload, targets, and role.

  • Did I give them too much work?
  • Were the targets we set unrealistic?
  • Was I not clear enough in defining their role or their tasks?
  • Was I not available to them when they needed my guidance?

Give a heads up

Let the employee know you want to have a chat. Agree with them on a time and (virtual) place. Do not take them by surprise.

Check your emotions

If you find you’ve been frustrated by this employee’s poor performance, learn to check those emotions at the door. Don’t let negativity set the tone for your talk.

Extra remote work advice: Remember that there’s only so much you can see and understand from a distance. Keep your mind open to what is going on in the world around the employee, beyond the screen


Ask and listen

A good manager coaches. Attempt to find out if your employee is aware of their poor performance, and have them explain where they think it’s coming from. Here are some conversation starters to probe these trickier subjects:

  • “What’s been going on that you feel might contribute to your performance?”
  • “Do you feel any of my instructions were unclear?”
  • “Were the goals we set unrealistic?”
  • “How have you been feeling at work recently?”
  • “Are you having trouble coping with the pandemic and working from home?”

Be specific and concrete

When it comes time to discuss your observations, don’t give vague criticisms. Have concrete employee feedback examples of poor performance to point out.

Create an action plan

Do this collaboratively with the employee so it feels like a solution rather than a punishment. Ensure it has measurable goals and timeframes to mark their efforts to perform better. An action plan is not a vague promise to do better, but a clear laying-out of objectives.

Poor work performance action plan:

Description of the problem: Be extremely clear and specific.

Objectives to solve the problem: 1-3 goals for the employee.

How progress will be assessed: How you’ll measure improvement.

Structured deadlines: The intervals that progress will be measured.

Manager’s role in the action plan: How you will support the employee.

Officevibe’s one on one software helps managers plan and track meetings with templates made specifically for difficult conversations.

Ask for feedback

See if they agree with the criticism, or if they had issues with how you handled it. Or better yet, make Officevibe’s employee engagement platform available to them, so they have a safe channel to give feedback on management.

  • “Is anything I’m saying not ringing true with you? Am I being unfair or unrealistic?”
  • “How has this discussion made you feel? I’d love to improve my delivery so your feedback would be very helpful.”

Extra remote work advice

If using video conferencing, pay attention to details like body language. And, try and see if their remote work environment might be distracting.


Reach out

Write them a friendly email the next day. Thank them for their time and for listening, while reminding them of the key points of the discussion. This tip goes double during remote working times.

Keep on schedule

Stick to planned follow-ups and consistent performance reviews. This removes any nerves about a surprise checkup. It also demonstrates you’re interested in their progress, not just their poor performance.

Recognize and praise

Be quick to offer kudos when you do see it, especially when it’s related to their efforts to improve their performance issues.

Extra remote work advice: It’s hard to make sure the employee doesn’t slip again when working from home. You’ll have to increase your pings and emails. To avoid being overbearing, do these in the morning. Consistency eases the tension of random spot checkups.

What are common causes of poor employee performance?

Poor work performance is often a symptom of a larger problem; it is not a core problem in itself. Your job as a manager is to attempt to understand the root cause of poor performance at work.

Here are some common causes of poor work performance:

1. Your employee wasn’t properly prepared

The first thing area you should investigate is whether poor performance is due to the employee not having the right tools, skills, or instructions. This means that the poor performance wasn’t intentional, and that the employee could improve.

As a manager, it’s your job to provide your team with the right tools and guidance.

2. Poor work performance due to workplace disengagement

Perhaps the employee is feeling unmotivated? Disengaged? Not getting along with their peers? Finding remote work to be difficult? It can also be due to a lack of involvement in decision making, or minimal recognition for their efforts.

Involve your team in earlier stages of planning, and recognize their achievements regularly.

3. Your employee is affected by external factors

When you can’t locate the source of the problem inside the workplace, you need to consider whether it’s a personal problem. This is admittedly the hardest to confront and will require tact and empathy to navigate.

Be clear that if the employee needs anything — someone to talk to, or some time off to sort things out — your door is always open.

During these difficult times, when so many of us had to radically adjust our work-life balance, our budgets, and our social dynamics, you can expect an uptick in instances of unintentional poor work performance for non-work reasons. Managers need to step up their open-mindedness and empathy when communicating with their teams.

Keep a pulse on how employees are feeling and give them a safe and anonymous space to tell you what they need using Officevibe.

Conclusion: Empathy in trying times

Now that remote working is so widespread, managers will likely be facing an increase in poor employee performance. No doubt, personal issues are going to play an outsized role.

That’s why, on top of all the advice given here about how to deal with a poorly performing employee, there’s one more key tool in the performance management kit: emotional intelligence.

Starting from a position of empathy will let your team know that you can be trusted to have their best interest at heart, even when you need to call out the occasional poor work performance.