As a manager, you face a unique set of challenges in the workplace. You have a hectic schedule, a never-ending task list, and a constant shortage of time—and on top of all that, you have to keep track of your entire team’s workload. Plus, you’re responsible for fostering career advancement, monitoring performance, and providing meaningful feedback for your employees in both good times and bad. Ultimately, your success as manager hinges on your ability to deal with any situation thrown your way. And when it comes to bad situations specifically, there’s one scenario you’ll undoubtedly face—and dread: managing underperforming employees. So, what’s a (great) manager to do? To successfully address this issue, you’ll need an effective plan. Here’s how to get started:

1. Determine performance standards.

There are instances in which underperforming employees are the victims of circumstance. Maybe the employee didn’t receive adequate training. Or, maybe you’re not providing clear and actionable feedback on his or her performance. On the other hand, there are times when an employee hasn’t lived up to his or her expertise or experience, has a bad attitude, or has lost sight of the company goals. Thus, the first thing you need to do is determine which type of underperforming employee you’re addressing. Ask yourself: Are you helping your employee? Are your guidelines and expectations clear? If the answer is “no,” then you need to start improving your own communication. This CareerBuilder article perfectly summarizes what’s expected of you as a manager: “You have to be willing to do everything in your power to help your employee succeed, except place the success of your company in jeopardy.” Now, if you’re already doing everything you can to manage your underperforming employee—and the situation isn’t improving—then it’s time to take a different course of action.

2. Do something.

Recognizing and managing underperformers is one of the most challenging aspects of being a manager. But, when these situations do arise, the absolute worst thing you can do is let underperformance continue. This Inc. article explains the importance of nipping underperformance in the bud—and fast: “letting underperformers coast not only affects productivity, it’s demoralizing for the rest of the organization.” So, to avoid draining the productivity and morale of your entire team, you have to act. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to fire the underperforming employee on the spot or make any other drastic changes. But, you need to start somewhere.

3. Develop a plan.

Okay, you’ve pinpointed the reasons behind an employee’s less-than-stellar performance. If you can’t address those reasons by changing your own actions, then you’ll need to manage the employee toward improving his or her own behavior. One way to do so is to create a performance improvement plan. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “A performance improvement plan (PIP), also known as a performance action plan, is a great way to give struggling employees the opportunity to succeed while still holding them accountable for past performance.” If you need an example of a comprehensive PIP, you can find one here. Once you’ve outlined your plan, you can work directly with your employee to revise the details. When you do, be sure to:

  1. Be specific with the improvements you’d like to see your employee make.
  2. Outline what tools you’ll provide to help him or her reach these goals.
  3. Monitor employee progress and give frequent feedback.
  4. Ask the employee for his or her own ideas on what he or she would like to gain from the plan.
  5. Keep the plan confidential. If other staff members ask about the underperforming employee, tell them you’re working with him or her, and ask them to remain positive and supportive of your efforts.

Finally, if your employee is not responding—or is unwilling to admit there’s an issue—you might have to let him or her go. As difficult as this is, you can’t afford to move slowly when you’ve determined it’s the right course of action. Clearly explain the reasons behind the termination—both to the employee and the rest of your staff. Furthermore, make sure you reiterate that you’ve given the employee a chance to improve—and that he or she failed to do so.


It might be tough, but addressing underperforming employees early can help you set a precedent for your entire team—and thus, avoid further performance problems down the line. And when you approach the situation with compassion, take the time to make a plan, and look to your own management efforts first, you’ll have a better chance for success.

Looking for more tips on how to give and receive feedback at work? Check out our upcoming webinar with special guest and leadership coach, Dr. Daphne Scott. Don’t miss out. Register now to attend this month’s special webinar on Tuesday, January 26, 2016, at 9:00 AM PST/12:00 PM EST.