How to Tell an Employee They’re Underperforming (And Turn Them Around)

The compassionate, professional, effective way to tell an employee they’re not meeting expectations—and get them back on track.

The Meetingnotes Team
March 4, 2024

The conversation’s going to be uncomfortable. Your employee may feel hurt. And you’ll need to navigate within company policies to stay legal and compliant. 

But there’s no escaping it. 

Telling an employee they aren’t meeting expectations is a job that every manager has to do.

The good news is that business leaders and HR experts have plenty of helpful insight into managing a struggling employee. 

Leaning on guidance from these experts, we’ll explain how you can minimize awkwardness and hurt feelings and maximize improvements for an underperforming employee.

In this article:

  1. How to Start Your Investigation
  2. Tips to Help Your Low-Performer Understand
  3. Make a Plan. Review it. Repeat.
  4. Collaborate; Don't Dictate.

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1. Start Your Investigation

The first step in resolving a performance problem is to ensure you understand the problem from all perspectives. Marcel Schwantes, Founder of Leadership from the Core, recommends finding the answer to the following questions four questions:

  1. Does the employee understand what the problem is?
  2. Does the employee understand the expected level of performance?
  3. Does the employee understand what will happen if performance standards are not met?
  4. Have you, as the manager, collected all the facts? Who, what, where, when, why, and how?

Schwantes says that you want a “yes” answer to all four of these questions. But let’s focus on the first two for now. 

Schedule a One-on-One to Uncover Misaligned Perspectives

The idea with questions #1 and #2 is to figure out where you and your employee’s perceptions are misaligned. Then, based on that, you can better determine what you need to communicate. 

Keep in mind that you’re not asking these questions directly. Instead, you’re trying to determine the answers yourself. And if any of the answers are a “no,” your job as a manager is to turn them into a “yes.”

The best time to do this is in a one-on-one meeting as soon as you notice the employee isn’t meeting expectations.

And the best way to approach this meeting, according to CEO Coach Sabina Nawaz, is “Asking your employee how they think they’re doing on their goals. In addition to an overall assessment, ask them to list key metrics and examples by which they measure their performance.”

By listening to your employee’s self-evaluation, you’ll gain insight into whether the employee understands (or is oblivious to) the performance issues. 

From there, you can use the meeting to discuss any discrepancies between you and your employee’s understanding of the problem and their performance standards. 

Also, by asking for a self-evaluation, Nawaz explains, you might discover that you didn’t realize how much work was involved in a particular project. In that case, you could work together to set more realistic timelines. 

This is also an excellent time to clarify any facts you may have missed (Question #4) and communicate to your employee the consequences of failing to meet performance expectations (Question #3).

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2. Helping Your Low-Performing Employee Understand

Maybe you already have a “yes” to all four questions listed above. In that case, you can move onto the next section on making a plan. 

If not, you need to be strategic about how you explain the problem, your expectations, and the consequences of failure to your employee. The tips below will help you avoid unproductive conflict, hurt feelings, vague guidance, or misunderstanding. 

Be Specific

To illustrate what the problem is, Nawaz recommends that managers describe specific behaviors. 

Rather than telling an employee they’re not responsive enough, for example, Nawaz suggests telling them something like: “I’ve noticed you haven’t responded to half my emails, and it has taken a week for you to respond to three others. In addition, you missed your last two deadlines without giving me a heads-up,” 

Notice that this feedback cites objective facts and makes your expectations clear. Plus, it connects the employee’s behavior to your expectations.


Connect it to Your Employee’s Goals

Hopefully, your employees have goals. By connecting your employee’s lack of performance to their professional goal, you help them understand:

  1. The expected level of performance 
  2. The consequences of not meeting the expected level of performance

For example, let’s say your employee wants to start leading projects. Explain to them that if they can’t deliver on current priorities as an individual contributor, you can’t trust that they can handle the additional workload of leading a project.

Be Objective

An employee who’s been told they’re not meeting expectations is going to have their defenses up. So objectivity is critical for managers. Schwantes has three tips for staying objective:

  1. Discuss performance issues, not the person.
  2. Limit the discussion to facts, not assumptions.
  3. Be objective; back yourself up with documentation and records.

It’ll take extra preparation, but sharing data and facts about your employee’s performance issues will help create a more productive, collaborative conversation. 

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3. Make a Plan. Review it. Repeat.

Now comes the fun part—creating a plan together and coaching your employee along their path to improvement. You can do this in the same one-on-one you scheduled to discuss misaligned perspectives. 

Or you can schedule another meeting to give your employee and yourself time to formulate ideas based on your conversation. Whatever works.

Either way, the idea is to work together to formulate a plan for getting your employee’s performance back on track. Nawaz recommends first asking your employee what their plan is, then filling in the gaps based on their answer. 

However your plan shakes out, make sure your employee knows:

  • What they need to do (specifically) to meet their performance standards.
  • How long they have to achieve results. 
  • The consequences of not meeting their performance standards.  

With the plan in place, keep track of your employee’s progress during regular one-on-one meetings.

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4. Collaborate; Don’t Dictate.

If you only have one takeaway on coaching a low-performing employee, make it this:

Rather than treating an underperforming employee like a confrontation, make it a collaboration. Have them assess their own performance, then provide your perspective. 

As Nawaz explains, starting a dialogue instead of “issuing an edict” will reduce your work, and your employees will become more involved in finding a solution.

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