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Managing underperformance

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Use this page to help you address and manage poor performance in the people you manage.

For guidance on managing poor performance during a probationary period, see our information on induction and probation.

Managing performance well

You can support the people you manage to perform well by:

  • meeting with them regularly in structured one-to-ones
  • setting clear objectives and performance standards
  • giving frequent feedback.

For guidance on how to get this right, read our step-by-step guide on managing performance.

Addressing poor performance

Despite putting these measures in place, you may find that someone you manage isn’t performing to the level you’d expect.

If this happens, it’s important to address poor performance as soon as you notice it. If you don’t, you’re letting the employee down by failing to clarify where they need to improve – and their performance is unlikely to change.

Your first steps will be to clarify the performance standards you expect to see, and to provide support and coaching. It may be that you haven’t been clear enough about your expectations. In many cases, an individual's performance will improve once they understand the standards they’re expected to meet, and they’ve received the right support or training.

NCVO trusted supplier Atkinson HR provides a downloadable guide on how to have energising coaching conversations.

Conducting an informal meeting

If the performance problems persist, you’ll need to conduct an informal meeting with the individual to discuss your concerns. Use the steps below to guide you.

Prepare for the meeting

It may help to:

  • list the main areas of concern and prioritise them
  • think of examples of when the employee’s performance has caused concern and why
  • think about some positive aspects of the employee’s performance – it’s easier to receive criticism if it’s balanced by some positive feedback.

For more tips, read our guidance on giving effective feedback.

Set the right tone

Try something like: ‘I think this has been quite a difficult period with a number of challenges. The purpose of the meeting today is to look at what has gone well, what not so well and how we can deal with any difficulties.’

Try and keep the meeting supportive and not adversarial – you’re trying to look for ways to improve the employee’s performance and you’ll achieve this most effectively if the discussion remains constructive.

Ask for feedback and their perspective

You should ask the employee to give feedback (self-appraise) on their own performance. However, sometimes when an employee is not performing well, they may be defensive and unwilling to give a view on their performance. They may also not realise there’s a problem. Give the employee the opportunity to self-appraise, but be prepared to be more directive in giving feedback if needed.

You should also give the employee the opportunity to explain any reasons for difficulties in doing their job – there may be personal circumstances you’re not aware of for example.

Give specific examples

Give specific instances of concern and concentrate on the employee’s performance, not personality. For example, ‘you take a slapdash approach to your work’ is not only likely to invoke a defensive response of ‘no I don’t!’, it’s also not specific.

It’s much better to give examples, such as: ‘I’m concerned that on Friday, you didn’t send out all the documentation to the conference delegates. As a result, they had less than a week to register for the conference. We spoke about this at the time, and I want to discuss how things have gone since then’. This gives you the opportunity either to confirm that improvements have occurred, or that the same behaviour is being displayed. Either way, you should continue to give specific examples for discussion.

Think about what the employee can cope with – if they’ve taken on board your point, you may not need to give further examples of poor performance.

Set clear next steps

Be specific about:

  • what you want the employee to do next
  • over what period of time.

Sometimes, certain behaviours might be causing the poor performance. You might therefore want to develop some objectives about behaviour, as well as about specific tasks you’d like the individual to achieve.

For example, if communication’s a problem, the objectives might be:

  • ‘show respect and courtesy to others at all times and listen attentively’
  • ‘keep your manager informed on a weekly basis about progress with updating the contacts database’.

You must also be clear what will happen if performance doesn’t improve over the review period. Be clear if you’ll need to proceed to a formal meeting if the individual’s performance doesn’t improve.

Write notes

Your notes need to set out:

  • your concerns
  • what will be done by each of you to address them
  • the timescale for improvement
  • when you’ll meet again.

Dealing with continuing poor performance

If the individual’s performance doesn’t improve in the time you set, you may need to follow your formal disciplinary procedure, on the grounds of poor performance.

Informing the individual

First, send or give the employee a letter setting out your specific concerns about their performance. The letter should invite the employee to a meeting to discuss these concerns. The employee has the right to be accompanied by a work colleague or trade union representative at the meeting.

Holding the meeting

At the meeting, you should:

  • discuss your ongoing concerns, giving clear examples
  • ask the employee to share their response to your concerns, including any reasons for the lack of improvement
  • explain next steps
  • take notes and keep a record of the discussion

Issuing an improvement note

After the meeting and after considering the employee’s views, you may decide to issue a performance improvement note/first formal warning. This would be the first stage of your disciplinary procedure.

The performance improvement note should set out:

  • the performance problem
  • the improvement that’s required
  • the timescale for achieving this improvement (eg three to six months)
  • a review date
  • any support you will provide to assist the employee.

The employee should be informed in writing that:

  • the note represents the first stage of the formal disciplinary procedure, on account of poor performance
  • failure to improve could lead to a final written warning and, ultimately, dismissal.

Right to appeal

The employee should be given the right to appeal the decision.

Monitoring performance

Keep a copy of the improvement note. You can use it as the basis for monitoring and reviewing your employee’s performance over the timescale you’ve set.

Dismissal on the grounds of capability

If you follow these steps but your employee’s performance doesn’t improve and you can’t redeploy them to another more suitable role (or they don’t agree to this), you can dismiss them on the grounds of capability.

Dismissal without prior warnings is unlikely to be found to be fair in an employment tribunal, so it’s important to follow these steps and your own disciplinary or capability procedure.

Read our guidance on disciplinary matters or download our editable sample disciplinary procedure.

If there’s a more junior job that the employee may be able and willing to do, you could discuss this with them as an alternative to dismissal. However, this move would need to be by mutual agreement. Any changes to an employee’s role should be documented in writing.

Further information

Last reviewed: 01 August 2022

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 01 August 2022

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