How do you tell an employee they are not performing well?

Managing an underperforming employee is tough. Heres advice from 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team on how to address poor performance.Its time to have the talk: The one where you h

How do you tell an employee they are not performing well?

Managing an underperforming employee is tough. Heres advice from 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team on how to address poor performance.

Its time to have the talk: The one where you have to figure out how to discuss poor performance with an employee.

This not-so-fun conversation you likely saw coming. After missed deadlines and low quality of work, you may have tried to have it, inquiring about their underperformance, one-off. Perhaps this employee even admitted to you that they had some personal problems affecting their work performance.

But you didnt address their poor performance, head-on. Now, you need to Or else they might be sticking around for much longer.

A manager who is a member of The Watercooler  our online community of 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team  expressed how he was facing this exact conundrum. An employee wasnt performing well and had divulged he was having some family issues.

This manager wondered: How should he approach this conversation in his next one-on-one meeting? How do you address poor performance with an employee, particularly when it seems they might have external issues influencing them?

Heres how some of the 1,000+ managers in The Watercooler recommended approaching the talk about underperformance with an employee

Dont tell a bad performer theyre a bad performer.

Youre assigning them a highly loaded label, and this can cause the person to be defensive. Strong castigation doesnt give any room for a productive conversation to discern the root cause of the bad performance. Rather, describe what behaviors youve noticed and the gap in performance, as objectively as possible. Do this without personally tying that persons identity into their work. Ask, This is what I noticed. Would you agree, or did you see things differently? Decrying, Youre a bad performer is essentially yelling at the person  and yelling doesnt make something easier to hear.Have this conversation with our 1:1 Tool Make the most of your one-on-one meetings.Learn more

Size up the general shape of any externalissues.

Youll want to get an understanding of the outside of work issues. You dont need to pry for details  just see if you can get a sense of the shape of things. Are there issues that could be solved through a more flexible work schedule? (For example, having the person take an afternoon off to handle a situation.) Are there issues that are emotionally taxing on them? (For instance, a sick family member can obviously bear a great toll on a person). In some cases, you might consider offering a short personal leave, so the person can focus on finding stability with their personal situation. If you do this, youll want to set expectations about their performance when they return.

Figure out if you have Problem A or ProblemB.

One of our Watercooler members, Paul Sanwald, a VP of Engineering at a small fitness startup, shared an excellent framework for thinking about how to approach an underperforming employee

Figure out which of these is true: (A) The employee knows they havent been productive or (B) The employee thinks theyre productivity has been acceptable. As a manager, your job is to figure out which of these two situations youre in. The first (Problem A) is a problem of everyone understanding the consequences of unacceptable productivity. The second situation (Problem B) is a disagreement on understanding what an acceptable level of productivity is.

One of the ways to discern if you have Problem A or B on your hands is to ask simply ask: How have you been feeling about your performance lately? Based on this answer, youll know which of these problems is true for you.Use our 1:1 Tool to discern Problem A or B ⭐️Get 100+ 1:1 meeting questions and agenda templates.Learn more

What to do if you have Problem A: The employee knows theyre underperforming.

If the employee knows they havent been performing well, heres a recommendation of how to structure the conversation:

  1. Recognize the problem: Before the meeting, ask the person to reflect on their performance: Whats going well? Not well? Get their perspective, and then offer your own.
  2. Identify the cause: Is the reason for underperformance something you did or didnt do, as a manager? (Here are some questions to ask to figure that out). Is it situational to the task they were given? Is systemic to the work environment? Are there mitigating factors you werent initially aware of?
  3. Explore possible solutions: Discuss different possible routes to resolve the underlying cause of poor performance. For example, if the person works best with a greater context, you as a manager need to be providing more detail and support on the project. However, if youve already been doing that consistently, another potential option is for that person to get a different job. Best outcome doesnt always mean just forcing the person to work harder and stay at the company. Consider fit, and what is best for you, the other person, and the team.
  4. Outline next steps: Youll want to plan out concrete next steps to address the underlying cause of the issue. What are the actions both you and the employee will take? By when? Will there be a follow-up conversation to check back in and see if those actions are fulfilled, and how they are going?

What to do if you have Problem B: The employee doesnt know theyre underperforming.

If an employee doesnt believe their performance is suffering in any way, Esther Derby, a Watercooler member, and well-known organizational consultant, recommended that you consider:

  • Does this person know that their co-workers feel they cant rely on them? Have they talked to the person, directly, or only complained to you?
  • How do you know that the employee is underperforming? For instance, have you been told that the employee is slow? What does slow mean in this case? If the person spends more (perceived) time than other people doing similar work but does so with fewer errors, you might, in fact, prefer that.
  • Can you articulate the expected level of performance? What specifically does this person need to do to improve?

Dont delay. As soon as you feel you might need to have the talk, the clock countdown starts. Every minute you postpone talking about an employees poor performance, the greater the likelihood their performance will get even worse. Schedule a one-on-one meeting immediately, if one isnt already on the books.

Yes, its far from fun to have to talk about poor performance with an employee. But you only exacerbate the damaging ramifications on your team by not having the conversation sooner.

The time to have the talk is now.Discuss underperformance with our 1:1 Tool ️Use our 100+ 1:1 meeting questions and agenda templates.Learn more


One of the best ways to have this talk with an employee is by holding a one-on-one meeting. Use our One-on-Ones Tool in Know Your Team to write a shared agenda for this meeting ahead of time, so your direct report has an adequate heads up. Additionally, you can avoid situations of underperformance in the future by holding regular one-on-one meetings. The incremental conversations and coaching can help someone whos underperforming know and improve their performance over time. Our One-on-Ones Tool can help, either way. Try Know Your Team for yourself today.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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