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Underperforming Employee Conversation: Here’s How it Should Go



Discussing underperformance with an employee is one of the most challenging tasks a manager can face. However, it’s also an essential part of maintaining a productive and harmonious workplace.  Underperforming employees have a severe impact on businesses. So, even though having these conversations are not pleasant, they are necessary. This article aims to guide you through the process of effectively addressing underperformance, fostering positive change, and nurturing the growth of your team members.

Understanding the Situation

The first step in addressing underperformance is to ensure you’ve fully understood the situation. Look for the signs of an underperforming employee. Gather factual information about the employee’s performance. This can include metrics, project outcomes, feedback from colleagues, or direct observations.

Ensure the perceived underperformance is not just a temporary downturn but a persistent issue. Understanding the whole picture will allow you to approach the conversation with empathy and fairness.

Don’t Delay

One thing leaders should avoid doing is delaying the conversation. Procrastinating or putting off a tough conversation with an underperforming employee is a natural thing to do. No good leader wants to tell their employees they are performing poorly and no employee wants to hear it. However, the longer you wait to have the conversation, the worst it may go.

Once you understand the situation, start looking at your schedule to find the earliest opening where you can have the conversation. You may be tempted to put it off because there may be things that seem more important. But, be honest with yourself to make sure you are not putting things ahead of the conversation due to its nature. The sooner the conversation happens, the quicker you can move on and your employee can begin to improve their performance.

Preparing for the Conversation

Before initiating a conversation with an underperforming employee, it is crucial to evaluate their performance thoroughly. Prepare for the conversation by clearly defining the performance issues. Be specific about the areas where the employee is not meeting expectations. Prepare examples that show the issue and think about the potential reasons for the underperformance. Are there environmental factors, like changes in workload, team dynamics, or personal issues, that may be influencing their performance?

Also, consider the potential solutions and support that can be offered to help the employee improve. This could include additional training, clearer instructions, more regular feedback, changes in workload, or increased support from colleagues or superiors.

Setting Up the Meeting

Managers should select a private and quiet space. A place where both parties can feel comfortable and focus on the discussion. It is also crucial to schedule the meeting at a convenient time. This will allow for a sufficient and uninterrupted conversation. Try to avoid high-pressure periods, such as the end of the workday or just before important deadlines. Doing this will help ensure a more productive discussion.

Explain the purpose of the meeting ahead of time. Leaving the subject matter of the meeting a secret can create unwanted anxiety and incorrect expectations. For example, an employee thinking they are meeting in order to get rewarded may be taken aback when they sit down to find out they are underperforming.

Starting the Conversation Itself

Start the conversation by expressing your intention to support the employee’s development and success. Clearly communicate the performance issues. Use the specific examples you have prepared. Be factual and non-judgmental in your descriptions, focusing on behaviors and outcomes, not personal characteristics.

Give the employee the chance to respond to your observations. They may provide insight into reasons for their underperformance that you were not previously aware of. Be sure to listen actively, showing empathy and understanding. Remember that your role is not to accuse but to solve the problem collaboratively.

As a good practice, keep the conversation future-focused. Identify specific, measurable improvements that need to be made. Then, collaborate on an action plan for achieving these goals. Ensure the plan includes follow-up meetings to review progress and provide ongoing feedback.

Use “I” statements as much as possible. Share your observations and concerns using “I” statements. For example, “I have noticed that your recent work has not met our quality standards.” This approach can help prevent the employee from becoming defensive.

Refrain from making assumptions about the employee’s motives, attitude, or character. Focus on the specific performance issues at hand.

Share Your Observations and Listen Actively

Present the employee with evidence of their underperformance, highlighting the impact it has on the team, clients, or company. Encourage the employee to share their perspective on the situation.

Encouraging the employee to share their perspective is a vital part of the conversation. Managers should practice active listening and genuinely consider the employee’s input. This not only demonstrates respect for the employee, but it may also reveal underlying issues or challenges that the manager was previously unaware of.

Active listening is a crucial element in conversations with underperforming employees. By actively listening to an employee’s concerns, leaders demonstrate respect and empathy. The hope is that actively listening will encourage employees to be more receptive to feedback and committed to making improvements.

Active listening involves fully focusing on the speaker. It also involves understanding their message, processing the information, and responding thoughtfully. This skill goes beyond merely hearing the words being spoken. It requires a genuine effort to comprehend and engage with the employee’s perspective.

Active listening allows managers to uncover underlying issues that may be contributing to underperformance. Doing this can help develop tailored solutions to address these challenges.


Offering Support and Setting Expectations

Once you’ve discussed the performance issue and the employee’s perspective, it’s important to offer support. Discuss the resources available to help the employee improve their performance. These resources might include mentoring, coaching, training programs, or workload adjustments. If you’re not sure how to help your team member, read our article What to Do When an Employee is Underperforming

Set clear expectations about what improved performance will look like. Be sure to detail the impact of not meeting these expectations. Remember, the ultimate goal is not to punish, but to support the employee towards better performance.  


Avoid Making Excuses

When addressing underperformance with an employee, managers must avoid making excuses or justifying the employee’s behavior. This not only undermines the effectiveness of the conversation but also sends mixed signals regarding expectations and accountability. Maintain a clear and consistent message. Doing this will effectively guide employees toward improvement and growth.

One common pitfall in performance conversations is inadvertently excusing poor performance due to external factors. Some of those factors may be a challenging work environment, an overwhelming workload, or personal issues. It is essential not to let these factors become a reason for accepting underperformance. Instead, managers should work with the employee to identify strategies for overcoming these challenges. All while maintaining a focus on achieving performance goals.

Another potential issue is downplaying the severity of the performance gap by comparing the employee’s performance to that of their colleagues. Or, perhaps, highlighting the employee’s past achievements. It is important to maintain a balanced perspective and recognize the employee’s strengths.

However, managers must also ensure that the current performance issues remain the focus of the conversation. Offering constructive criticism and outlining specific areas for improvement will help to reinforce the message that the employee’s performance is not meeting expectations.

Closing the Meeting

To close the meeting, recap the main points of the discussion. Then, review the agreed action plan and the timeline for improvement. This ensures that both you and the employee are aligned on the next steps. Ask the employee if they have any questions or concerns. Make sure to address those concerns respectfully. Lastly, reassure the employee that you are confident in their ability to improve and that you will provide the necessary support along the way.


Follow-up is crucial in managing underperformance. Regular check-ins provide the opportunity to give and receive feedback. They also give you a chance to make necessary adjustments to the action plan. Positive reinforcement when improvements are made can motivate the underperforming employee and contribute to sustained performance improvement.

In conclusion, managing underperformance is not just about correcting behavior but fostering growth, communication, and teamwork. By approaching these conversations with understanding, fairness, and a forward-looking focus, managers can turn challenging situations into opportunities for development and success. Remember, as a leader, your job is not just to manage people. But to also support and guide them.


Use the Right Phrases

Managers need to communicate their concerns in a manner that encourages improvement. However, the challenge is doing this without triggering defensiveness or damaging the employee’s self-esteem. It is crucial to be honest and direct. But, keep in mind, the language you choose can make a significant difference in how the message is received. And, the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Certain phrases, if used thoughtlessly, may hinder the conversation and impede the employee’s progress. By refining your communication skills and steering clear of potentially harmful language, you can lay the foundation for a productive and meaningful conversation. One that benefits both the employee and the organization as a whole.

Here are some phrases you can consider using

  • “Do you have any feedback for us?”
  • “Is there anything we are doing that is making it difficult for you at work?”
  • “How can we best support you?”
  • “How can we help you succeed?”



Addressing underperformance is a complex and sensitive process. A process that requires thoughtful preparation, clear communication, and active listening. By approaching the conversation with empathy and a commitment to the employee’s growth, managers can foster a positive environment in which employees feel supported. That support may motivate employees to improve.

The above tips can help the employee overcome obstacles and ultimately contribute to the company’s success.


Also read:

What to Do When an Employee is Underperforming

How to Fire an Underperforming Employee

Thomas Martin
Tom is a member of the Editorial Team at StartUp Mindset. He has over 6 years of experience with writing on business, entrepreneurship, and other topics. He mainly focuses on online businesses, digital publishing, marketing and eCommerce startups.

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Tom is a member of the Editorial Team at StartUp Mindset. He has over 6 years of experience with writing on business, entrepreneurship, and other topics. He mainly focuses on online businesses, digital publishing, marketing and eCommerce startups.

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