Ask Kate: My employee is underperforming. Help!

  • Performance & Appraisals
Two men sitting and talking
Kate Palmer FCIPD - Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director

(Last updated )

Whenever a staff issue comes up, Peninsula advisers are on hand to help. There’s no query too big, too small, or too bizarre for our experts to unpack.

So, if you’re sitting on a query, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s what keeps our Peninsula clients safe and successful all year-round, and gives them the peace of mind to focus on their business.

This caller was stressed about an underperforming employee. So, they asked Kate Palmer, Peninsula’s HR Advice and Consultancy Director, for expert advice.

Here’s what they had to say…

Hi Kate

A couple of months ago, I hired a new employee to join the team. Unfortunately, they haven’t been meeting my expectations. They’re not hitting their targets and they constantly seem distracted. It’s a shame because I want them to be enjoying the work, but they just don’t seem motivated. I know I need to say something because this can’t go on, but I don’t want to do anything that might make things worse. Help!


Kate’s reply was…

Hi Anon,

It’s disheartening when your employee isn’t matching up to what you hoped. However, you’re doing the right thing by asking for advice. There are lots of reasons why staff tend to underperform, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions off the bat.

Because your employee has only recently started working for you, I’d first want to dig into why they might be struggling to hit the ground running.

I appreciate that approaching your employee about their performance is difficult. But there are ways to go about it that can help you reduce the risk of them detaching even more. As uncomfortable as it may be, you will need to pull your employee aside for a chat. This doesn’t need to be formal. In fact, a first conversation doesn’t have to be.

You should explain to your employee how they’re underperforming, which may involve highlighting some negatives. But, try not to be negative about the negatives. I’m not assuming you would do this, but if you go in with the attitude where you’re ready to scald your employee, you’re likely to do more harm than good.

So, while being honest and transparent is important, so is being able to stay calm and open-minded. Remember, you want your employee to feel and deliver their best. So, this conversation is a starting point for you to figure out how to do that.

That being said, don’t try to assume why your employee is underperforming (which we often do) because this may influence how you handle the conversation.

Your employee could be underperforming because they have a personal issue or an underlying health condition they’re not telling you about. But you won’t know that until you address it with them.

So, let’s say your employee is dealing with a personal issue. Do you have an employee assistance programme (EAP)? If you don’t, consider setting one. An EAP allows your staff to access third-party counselling and advice for free. And issues like mental health or bereavement, for example, are better left to the experts. Plus, your employee might feel more comfortable addressing their issue with someone impartial who doesn’t know them, rather than their employer.

But whatever it is your employee may or may not be dealing with, your focus should be on how to support them at work. If a health condition is affecting their work, it may be that you need to adjust how they work, like letting them work from home some days, or allowing them to take regular and longer breaks.

Or, if the issue is specifically work-related, dig into that. Is your employee struggling to manage the workload? Are they not enjoying the role? They might be reluctant to tell you out of fear it will make them look bad in your eyes. It can be intimating having that conversation with your manager or employer after all, so again try to make them feel as comfortable as possible.

If your employee is struggling with the work, your first step would be to create a step-by-step improvement plan for them, which you can regularly update to match up with their goals. When you have a plan, you can create objectives for your employee to work towards and help them play to their strengths and interests. This can help them to stay motivated, and also allows you to clearly track and evaluate your employee’s progress.

If nothing improves after that, that’s when you have to make a decision.

When an employee is still on their probation period or has worked for you for less than 2 years, they don’t have as many rights as a long-serving employee. However, it is still best HR practice to follow a fair procedure.

You may decide you want to give your employee more time to improve, so you could extend their probation period. There’s no law that limits how long this probation period has to be. Or, you may decide that you have to move forward with a dismissal.

Poor performance is a fair reason to dismiss your employee, but this should always be a final resort after exploring all your other options.

Sometimes an employee for whatever reason might not be right for the job. But you may be able to help them improve by trying these six HR approved ways to tackle poor performance first.

I really hope your employee gets back on track.

All the best,


P.S. Got a HR query or staff problem? Call 0800 029 4384 to get advice today.

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