How to correct underperforming employees

How to correct underperforming employees

It happens all too often. As hard as HR works, and as good as you think your instinct is, sometimes a new employee just doesn’t seem to be working out. Or maybe it’s an established team member that all of the sudden starts performing more poorly. Either way, you’re the boss, and you have to get to the bottom of it.

Women tend to have an even harder time dealing with underperforming employees because we’re generally more relational and we’re constrained by cultural narratives about women needing to be likeable. Part of the “girl boss” mantra is about including and elevating others, and it’s legitimately a sign of a good leader to care. But you’re also responsible for results, and the reality is that you need to get to the bottom of things. Here’s how.

Check your expectations

You want to be proactive, but not reactionary. If you feel like an employee is underperforming, you need to take a breath and step back from the situation before responding. Look for verifiable data and measurable indicators that the employee is delivering less effectively than in the past. Sometimes we let frustration in other areas of our lives be transferred at work, so this step is all about making sure that it’s the employee that has the problem, not you.

Assess severity

Early on, you need to identify how critical it is to deal with the issue. This will depend on the type of work you do and the employee’s role. In some cases, and in some sectors, it may be very important to address underperformance immediately to avoid major risk, in which case you may need to remove the employee from her or his position temporarily to investigate. However, in most cases, you’ll want to take things more slowly and investigate further before taking action.

Consider your impact

This is related to the first step, but as the boss, you need to consider if you’ve changed the environment for the employee in a way that’s negatively impacting their performance. Your actions carry more weight, and what you thought of as a small change may be creating ripple effects down the line that the employee shouldn’t be blamed for.

Investigate causes

If your underperforming employee is delivering unsatisfactory results, there will be a reason. It could have to do with their work environment or their home life, and they may not even be able to point to the direct cause. There are a number of steps you can take here. You can have a non-confrontational conversation about the performance. Reference measurable data related to reduced performance and ask about the employee’s perception of concerns. In certain sectors, you may need to rule out substance abuse as a matter of public or customer safety. You can get results back from a drug testing lab very quickly, so it’s an easy factor to rule out. You may have other tests you can run, or ask a consultant to review the workplace if the cause continues to be mystifying.


Finally, you should document the measurable performance concerns and any steps taken to address them, including investigations, discussions, and employee responses. Document the remediation plan or termination, depending on the outcome of your investigation.

Dealing with an underperforming employee is an unpleasant task, but keeping things based on data and following a structured process can help you be more confident and effective in your response.

Poppy Watt

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