Have you ever hired someone who had the makings of a star performer only to discover their performance didn’t live up to your expectations? Unfortunately, and despite our best efforts, there are no guarantees in hiring. Some candidates interview well and know how to mask their weaknesses. Others may lose motivation after getting hired, perhaps due to personal issues that affect performance or challenges related to their work, such as being overwhelmed or failing to connect with co-workers.
In any case, underperforming employees shouldn’t be viewed as a lost cause. Employers often have the means to reconnect with workers, recognize their challenges, and build a structured plan to help them succeed. Here’s a look at signs of underperforming employees, as well as tips to help positively redirect their trajectories.
What Is Employee Underperformance?
In general, an underperforming employee is one who isn’t meeting the minimum performance requirements set out in a job description. However, underperformance isn’t always related to tasks and assignments; it can also be associated with poor teamwork or failure to follow company rules. And while some underperforming employees may simply be disengaged or lack the skills they promised, subpar performance can also stem from poor management, inadequate training, lack of growth opportunities, and other workplace issues.
It’s also important to note that employee underperformance is a relative term. In other words, what may be deemed underperforming for one company or industry may be acceptable for another. Performance capacity can also vary from one individual to the next, further highlighting the nuance of identifying underperformance.
Impact of Underperforming Employees
In many contexts, underperforming employees can reduce overall company productivity. According to a 2023 Gallup report, employees who are not engaged or are actively disengaged cost businesses $8.8 trillion globally, the equivalent of 9% of total global GDP.
That impact can go beyond the bottom line by negatively affecting the rest of your team. “Employees need confidence that their coworkers are looking out for each other,” according to the Gallup report. “Creating a sense of flow in a restaurant kitchen, in a classroom, in an office, or online requires social bonding and connection gained together through positive performance experiences.” It’s therefore in any business’s best interest to foster an environment that healthily promotes engagement, productivity, teamwork, and performance.
Causes of Employee Underperformance
There are many reasons employees may underperform at work. Sometimes, those factors are under the employee’s control, such as how they manage their time. In other cases, employers contribute to poor employee performance by fostering a toxic work environment. Here are some common reasons for employee underperformance:
- Lack of skills: An employee might be placed in a role for which they lack experience, training may have been subpar, or they may have embellished skills on their resume.
- Unclear expectations: Without clear expectations, employees may feel confused, which can lead to job dissatisfaction and underperformance.
- Lack of recognition: Employees may check out if they feel underpaid, undervalued, or underappreciated in their roles.
- Poor onboarding: Employees can feel lost in their jobs when employers don’t take the time to acclimate them to office rules, processes, and technology.
- Stressful work environment: Employees may struggle with a fast-paced environment, for example, which can create or exacerbate anxiety, leading to lower productivity.
- No paths for development: When employees feel they’re not growing, they may lose interest and motivation in their work.
Signs of Underperforming Employees
For employers, the first step to help disengaged employees is learning how to recognize one. Here are some behaviors to watch out for, many of which may indicate that the employee could benefit from additional support or clearer guidelines:
- Spending more time discussing the approach to a project than executing it.
- Often shifting responsibility or not owning up to mistakes.
- Delegating a significant portion of their tasks.
- Investing more time in conflict resolution than focusing on team objectives.
- Prioritizing personal tasks over necessary teamwork.
- Being unavailable, especially during crucial times.
- Being frequently late to work or meetings.
- Leaving the workplace early without notifying colleagues.
Noticing these behaviors can be an opportunity for open dialogue and understanding, which can lead to solutions and a more cohesive team environment.
How to Manage Underperforming Employees
Rather than turning a blind eye to underperforming employees or rushing to disciplinary action, consider thinking about how you can help turn a low performer into a high performer. The following suggestions can help you build strategies to improve employee performance, cultivate an engaging work environment, and ensure that your hiring process identifies the best possible candidates.
1. Set up a cycle of accountability.
Disengaged employees can’t be expected to improve if they’re not getting clear direction. When assigning a project, try to clearly define what’s expected from the employee. Consider setting mutually agreed-upon milestones for achieving project goals, and let the employee know they’ll be held accountable for what they agree to do.
If a new hire doesn’t meet expectations or dependable employees start faltering, remember that there are strategies to rectify matters.
Once you’ve set goals, try not to let the milestones lapse without checking in. You can set reminders on your calendar to check on the status of projects. Project management software, which details projects, tasks, and timelines, can be set to remind employees of upcoming tasks and deadlines.
2. Tap into personal motivators.
When employees feel a personal connection with coworkers, productivity can improve. That’s why it’s important to get to know your employees’ personal goals and motivations. If you help them succeed, they can be more likely to help you succeed. When meeting with a disengaged employee, reflect on the following:
- What are your needs as a manager? What are your expectations and requirements? For example, you might wish for your employee to be more proactive in their role by taking ownership of more projects or responsibilities, or maybe you simply want them to submit timely expense reports.
- What are your employee’s needs? Try to discuss with them what they’re looking for. Try to ask what drives and motivates them. Perhaps it can be recognition, a better work-life balance, or more challenging work. Try to listen carefully to uncover needs you may not have considered.
With that information, consider thinking of what you can offer or suggest to help your employee meet your expectations while fulfilling their needs. This could be clearer guidelines, additional training, specific tools, employee upskilling opportunities, or even more flexible working hours. By understanding each other’s perspectives, you can collaboratively identify ways to align resources, expectations, and aspirations for mutual benefit.
3. Leverage employee engagement surveys.
Employee engagement surveys ask employees about their organizations, leadership, and themselves. Employees may be asked to agree or disagree with statements like, “When I get an assignment, I find out how it fits into the organization’s structure and goals,” or “I start every day with a plan.” Such surveys can be created and shared internally, or businesses can bring in a third-party consulting agency for its expertise and objective perspective.
Instead of sharing survey results solely with managers, consider providing feedback directly to employees, along with suggestions for what they can do to improve. This approach can foster self-awareness within employees and give them greater agency and ownership over their development, rather than placing the onus only on managers to craft individualized engagement plans.
4. Improve your hiring process.
One way to reduce the chances of hiring underperforming employees and is to improve the odds that you’re hiring the right person by involving other team members in the recruitment process.
Google, for example, uses a rigorous interview process that can include three to four interviews in one day. The company assesses candidates with clear, structured rubrics – the same rubric for each individual considered for the role – to help make sure everyone is evaluated from the same perspective. They also ask open-ended questions to learn how candidates solve problems, how they interact with a team, and how their minds work. The company then takes into account a number of perspectives before making a final decision and offer, rather than relying on only one person’s opinion. These measures can help increase the chance of hiring a strong contributor and can decrease the chances of hiring the wrong person.
5. Seek employee referrals.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the benefits of employee referral programs are that they can be a boon for businesses. They can lower recruiting costs and improve hiring rates and even retention rates. Consider establishing a clear referral program that outlines the process, expectations, and incentives. Try to make it easy for employees to submit referrals, whether through an online form or to a dedicated email address.
Another way to boost employee referrals – especially if you’re struggling to get recruits – is to utilize “searchlight meetings,” which are informal gatherings where employees and hiring managers get together to discuss role requirements and share contacts. Try to avoid pressuring employees to give referrals. These meetings should be more about brainstorming to see who may be a good fit.
The Bottom Line
If a new hire doesn’t meet expectations or dependable employees start faltering, remember that there are strategies to rectify matters. When employees underperform, it’s crucial for both you and them to proactively address the issue by clearly communicating motivations and expectations. Then try to create a plan to course-correct and hold each other accountable. If you don’t take action, top performers may end up overburdened – potentially exacerbating the problem. By getting involved and offering solutions, you might transform a struggling individual into a star contributor after all.
A version of this article was originally published on April 16, 2014.
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