Written by EMILY GENT
For any line manager, it’s possible that despite your best efforts, at some point you may have to deal with a dip in employee performance. It could be the result of a heavy workload, change in attitude or lack of motivation, or a sign of a deeper underlying personal or professional problem.
If some of your team aren’t performing well it can affect morale and ability to reach goals as a business, so it’s important to tackle the underperformance as soon as possible.
Especially if you are someone who dislikes or avoids confrontation, informing an employee that they are underperforming may seem daunting. However, there are a number of effective ways to tackle the problem and secure a positive outcome.
Question yourself first
Before you approach the employee, first identify the possible causes of the dip in performance and start by questioning how you have led and supported them. Has the person been clearly told what is expected of them? Are they aware of the consequences of performance failure? Has their performance been measured against a target to determine if they are underperforming? These are just some of the questions you should ask yourself – and if any answers aren’t clear, the employee may not even realise they are underperforming. In this case, educating them rather than confronting them might be the best solution.
Take Action as soon as possible
Not dealing with underperformance quickly sends the wrong message to employees – this behaviour may be seen as acceptable by the rest of the team. Speak to the employee as soon as you’re aware of the issue but make sure you are prepared with evidence of where they are underperforming and be specific as possible. Simply telling them “you’re not doing a good job” without demonstrating why is not constructive.
Be objective and supportive
There’s no need to be confrontational. Try to approach the subject informally – a casual chat with your employee might be all that it takes to get them back on track. Be sensitive and initiate the conversation with something open and supportive – for instance: “You don’t seem to be yourself lately, is there anything I can do to help?” The employee may then be inclined to speak up about an underlying issue or concerns they have. Explain to them where they are underperforming, however balance this with what they are doing well so that they can see you value their strengths. Use this conversation to identify and agree ways together on how they can improve, setting objectives and a date at which to review them. Let them know you are there for support if they need it.
Find out what motivates them
It’s hard to direct someone without understanding what makes them motivated – like their long-term career goals and support they might need to get there. A good technique is to ask the underperforming employee how you, as their line manager, can help them. Regularly ask for feedback from your team. That might feel unnerving – but how can you improve if you don’t know what your weaknesses are?
Make a plan of action
If an informal chat doesn’t spark an improvement, consider a performance improvement plan (PIP) to address the areas of concerns and gaps in work performance. It’s best to turn to your HR team for guidance on this, but here is a brief outline of what to include:
- Information on expected performance levels and /or behaviour and specific details on where the employee is lacking
- Specific measurable objectives to improve performance – PIPs usually last between 30 and 90 days
- Guidance on how a line manager will assist the employee – e.g. with training
- How often the line manager and employee will discuss progress
- Clear consequences for not meeting the objectives
If the problem continues
What if there’s no improvement? In this case, you may find you need to involve HR to support you with starting formal performance management with the employee to gain improvement in their performance. This process would follow the provisions of a disciplinary procedure and involves – formal meetings to discuss the employee’s capability, with the outcome of the meetings progressing through the disciplinary warning sanctions, with dismissal as a last resort, if there is no improvement.