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Managing underperforming employees

Managing underperforming employees can be a frustrating process, with small improvements being followed by a quick decline back to old patterns.

However, one of the problems can be that an employer is working on the assumption that if an employee is underperforming, the right process to follow is always performance management. This is not always the case.


In general, if an employee is underperforming, the instinct is to initiate a performance management/capability process. This is of course the most appropriate course of action if an employee is unable to reach the level of performance expected due to some shortfall in knowledge or ability.

In such cases it is entirely appropriate to initiate a performance management process. Please note it is not enough to set targets and then leave the employee to it.

The assumption is that if the underperformance is genuinely due to capability, this will not simply improve because the employee is told it must, something is missing in their knowledge or abilities which will need to addressed, before improvement will be possible and the employer will need to help with this.

Bearing this in mind the process would usually involve the following:

  • An employer should meet with an employee and agree achievable and realistic targets for an appropriate set period of time (what is an appropriate time period will depend on the role). The employer will need to participate in this process, for instance by providing extra training, or regular meetings to monitor the employee’s performance and provide assistance or guidance during the time period set.
  • If, at the end of that time period, the employee has not achieved the goals set, then they would most likely be invited to a disciplinary meeting.
  • At the disciplinary meeting further targets should be set for the next time period.
  • The outcome of the disciplinary meeting is likely to be a written warning as the employee has failed to achieve the agreed goals.
  • The employee’s performance will then be monitored during the given time period.
  • If at the end of that time period the employee has not achieved the goals set, then they would most likely be invited to a second disciplinary meeting.
  • This process is then repeated until either the employee’s performance reaches the level expected of them or they are ultimately dismissed at the end of the performance management process.

…or conduct

However, there are occasions where, if you scratch the surface, it becomes apparent that an employee’s poor performance might be less to do with their capability to perform the role to the standard expected of them, and more to do with a poor attitude demonstrated by a failure to put in the effort required to achieve what is expected of them.

In such cases, a performance management process is unlikely to be the best or most efficient course of action as the employee is basically capable but is simply not trying and it is very likely that initiating the performance management process would see a temporary improvement, but then a return to the poor performance once they have done just enough to bring the process to an end.

In circumstances where employers believe that an employee is underperforming due to lack of effort and/or a poor attitude then the appropriate process would be a disciplinary process on the basis of misconduct; it is not that the employee is unable, it is that they are underperforming because they are not putting in the necessary effort.

The main benefit of using this process is that it tends to be much quicker. There is no need to set targets and allow time to improve; as soon as the employee is underperforming, formal action can be taken.

And once a warning has been given, again there is no need to allow time for the employee to improve before moving to the next step; as soon as their performance falls below what is expected the employer can move to the next stage of the process.

Spotting the difference

But how can an employer tell when an employee’s poor performance is down to a poor attitude rather than an inability to perform the role? The employer should consider the following questions:

  • Has the employee ever previously achieved the levels expected or successfully performed the tasks required?
  • Does the employee’s performance improve temporarily after you raise your concerns with them?
  • Is the employee’s performance variable from one day to the next?
  • Are there certain days when you notice the employee’s performance tends to slip, e.g. Monday and/or Friday?

Other, perhaps more obvious indicators, would be:

  • Excessive time chatting with colleagues
  • Excessive internet usage

If an employer spots any of the above, then they should seriously consider whether a disciplinary process for misconduct would be more appropriate than a performance management process.


Obviously it is extremely important that an employer ensures that they use the appropriate process, as implementing a process for misconduct when an employee is struggling to perform will not help the employee to improve and could result in an unfair dismissal if the employee is ultimately dismissed.

Therefore, do consider the points set out above, but if you are still in any doubt as to which process would be most appropriate please do not hesitate the Employment team; we will be more than happy to advise you on the best process to use for your circumstances and will guide you through the process itself if that would assist you.