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How to manage underperforming workers

Published 07 August 2017

Hiring the ideal person for the job can be easy, but dealing with that individual when they fail to perform as expected can be problematic.

On paper and in an interview a job candidate can shine. The true test of that individual’s ability will come when they actually have to do the job.

There will inevitably be occasions where the new recruit fails to live up to expectations, and appears not to be up to the task.

Addressing such matters is an opportunity to highlight and discuss any management concerns. It can also be used to identify and provide any necessary support or training required.

The most effective way of dealing with an underperforming employee is by having an established and recognised performance management plan (1)

The aim of the policy should be to evaluate and ensure the worker is performing to a satisfactory level and carrying out their duties to the required standard.

Many workers fear performance management plans and view them with trepidation and scepticism. They are widely considered as the first step by management in a move to force an individual out of an organisation.

However, a good policy designed to fairly review, evaluate and assess workplace accomplishment can help to align the workforce, build competencies, and improve performance and development, which in turn can produce better results for the employer.

There are a number of elements to an effective performance management plan, which include:

  • Should be specific to the job.
  • Practical and straightforward to follow and use.
  • Identify areas of poor performance.
  • Monitor and measure results
  • Provide training and development to help improve performance
  • Explain how the process works and actions that will be taken should the required level of performance not be met.

Crucial factors in managing performance are ensuring that clear standards are set and communicated, providing regular and constructive feedback and taking corrective action where necessary.

Despite an employer’s best intentions, will and effort it is not always the case that the problem will go away.

Establishing and identifying the cause of poor work performance is important. It is dangerous to simply assume it is a result of laziness, negligence or lack of effort. However, it is worth acknowledging that there will no doubt be occasions where this is in fact the case.

Getting to the bottom of the problem resulting in the poor performance should make it clear what action is needed to correct it. Being able to eliminate the cause of the problem should allow the worker to perform to the expected standard.

Underperformance can sometimes be as a result of poor health or a hidden disability (2), which is why it is always crucial to get to the root cause of any problem. While a physical disability may be visible, hidden disabilities such as chronic pain or a mental illness is not as obvious.

The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as a mental or physical impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long term’ effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities (3).

If performance managing a worker with a disability; reasonable adjustments (4) should be made to allow that individual to improve their performance. A failure to do so could result in a disabled worker making a claim for disability discrimination to an employment tribunal.

Good performance management should make sure that all workers are clear about the following:

  • The aims of the organisation
  • Individual requirements to help the employer attain its goals.
  • Abilities needed to fulfil their role.
  • What is expected in terms of performance.
  • Development and performance guidance that can aid the organisation.
  • How they are performing.
  • What action will be taken if underperformance is identified.

It is important to ensure that managers and supervisors are fully trained and knowledgeable about the performance management process (5) as applying it correctly can boost profits and help an organisation achieve its goals.


  1. How to manage performance | Advisory booklet. 2010 Apr 20; Available from:
  2. Hidden disabilities: Pain beneath the surface. BBC News [Internet]. 2017 Jul 5; Available from:
  3. Definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 - GOV.UK [Internet]. Available from:
  4. The employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments [Internet]. Available from:
  5. Managing Under Performance [Internet]. Castle Associates Ltd. 2015. Available from:

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