Managing underperformance in the workplace

Underperformance is a term used when an employee isn’t meeting performance targets, or is behaving in an unacceptable way at work. Underperforming staff members negatively impact productivity and workplace morale problems can escalate if the matter is not dealt with promptly.

Many employers find it helpful to engage an experienced and independent HR Consultant to manage the process, because dealing with underperformance is both complex and challenging.

Getting off on the right foot

A Performance Management Strategy (PMS) should be part of operational framework within which business owners, managers and employees operate. In a well-run business, staff members should have a clear understanding of the work and conduct expected of them, including the mechanisms in place for management to evaluate performance and provide appropriate feedback.

A well-structured PMS includes an evaluation process based on the selection criteria used for recruitment and should accurately reflect the role. Categories include:

  • Major job requirements
  • Agreed performance indicators
  • Evidence of achievement
  • Barriers experienced

Ideally the review should be linked to the staff members professional and career development strategy. Providing staff members with regular constructive feedback minimises the risk of under-performance.

What constitutes underperformance?

Underperformance is generally characterised as:

  • failure to perform the duties of the position or to perform them to the standard required;
  • non-compliance with workplace policies, rules or procedures;
  • inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour in the workplace;
  • disruptive or negative behaviour that impacts on co-workers.

Managing underperformance

Best practice management techniques include a predetermined process which provides a framework to inform the discussion, develop solutions and manage the process. Importantly, any action taken must conform to relevant legislation and with the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness.

Key points

Identifying the problem – understanding the barriers, issues and behaviours will assist you to clarify the performance problem.

Assess the problem – is this a new or ongoing issue? How serious is the underperformance? Are there outside influences or other staff involved? A gap analysis will help to determine whether counselling, coaching, further training or other action is required.

Communicate – A private meeting to discuss the issue (and why it is an issue) provides an opportunity to explain your expectations of the role. Provide a supportive environment for the employee to discuss their point of view, and what they believe is stopping them from doing the job to the standard you expect.

Seek solutions – A jointly agreed solution allows the person to take ownership of the problem. Active listening will inform your decision to offer further training, mentoring or, if appropriate, flexible work practices. Follow up with scheduled meetings to discuss progress and provide ongoing feedback.

Make a plan – Creating a written action plan which documents the agreed understanding of the role, responsibilities, agreed outcomes, performance expectations and a timeframe can serve as a performance agreement. To meet best practice standards, also include the potential consequences of failure to meet agreed outcomes.

Documentation – Keep a detailed written record of all discussions in case further action is required. Records should be filed in the employee’s personnel records.

Don’t go it alone

At Cornerstone, we’re a dynamic team of professionals who have accumulated years of experience in both the private and the public sector. We specialise in Performance Management and back it up with targeted training. To partner with Cornerstone, call us on 08 6150 0043 or contact us by email at