9 Ways to Manage Underperforming Employees

Guide employees who are not delivering the goods to re-engage all while reinforcing a positive company culture.

learn more about Abigail Phillips

By Abigail Phillips


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Disengaged, unfocused and underperforming employees can sap the life from any business. Managed correctly, employees can become a startup's greatest asset. If they're managed poorly, they can pull a company under.

Astute business managers recognize that employee behavior is not the sole responsibility of the individual staffer, but rather something that both parties need to work on together.

If an employee's behavior is causing concern, remember that at one point this individual was hired based on his or her skills, application and attitude. Without writing people off, business leaders need to consider their approach to people management and figure out how to help floundering employees become re-engaged at work. 

Related: Stop Delaying: 3 Surefire Ways to Do Employee Reviews Properly


Give clear feedback

Before reprimanding an employee for his or her effort (or perceived lack of it), give that person as much feedback as possible. If the quality of the work has taken a nosedive, speak to the employee. Communicate what's changed, how the person's approach should be be modified and the time frame that's been granted for turning things around. Sometimes all people need is a nudge in the right direction.

Listen to points of contention

Communication is a two-way street and leaders should be prepared to listen to an employee's point of view. Is there a reason for the attitude change? Has the employee stopped putting in effort because of unhappiness over something? Unearthing the cause of the problem is key.

Related: What Do Great Leaders Discuss With Their Employees?

Address companywide concerns

If an employee highlights a concern that could affect more than one person, be sure to address it. If a single staffer feels as though he or she is overburdened by work, in all likelihood others might feel the same way.

A great way to deal with a situation like this is to call a meeting with representatives of the relevant departments to discuss company culture: What would they like to see improve and how can members of the team accomplish this? At the beginning of the meeting be clear that this is an open forum where employees are free to air grievances without fear of repercussion.

Highlight the fact that the aim of the meeting is to find a solution to any problems, rather than to serve as an opportunity to vent. This collective approach will help employees feel valued and part of the company’s development -- a morale booster in itself.


Find out what makes an employee tick

It’s very hard to direct someone without understanding what makes him or her tick. Take the time to get to know employees: What are their long-term goals and aspirations and where would they like to see their career headed in the next one to three years?

Sometimes employee disengagement stems from feeling undervalued (as opposed to resentment over too much work) and the only way to overcome this is by understanding the people involved. With this knowledge it's possible to ensure that staffers are assigned to the right roles and tasks.

Related: 3 Online Tools for Supercharging a Company's Culture


Create performance goals together

It's critical to include employees in the process of outlining individual performance targets. Ask staffers how they would like to improve, what they would like to achieve and the new skills they want to learn. Inviting this level of engagement will motivate employees to work hard and strive for betterment.

Follow up

A good leader always follows up with employees. Once a goal is set, be sure to monitor the progress. If someone has been asked to complete a task by a certain date, be sure that he or she has accomplished it.

Successful leaders hold their employees accountable. Most people will appreciate this structure at work and respect the manager's due diligence. Showing an interest in the work of employees can significantly boost a company's culture and morale.

Related: 5 Ways HR Technology Can Improve Performance Reviews

Recognize and reward improvement

One surefire way to alienate disengaged employees is to ask for improvement, only to forget to reward progress after the effort is put in. Be sure to recognize such accomplishments and congratulate employes upon their rethinking their approach to the business.

Continue to provide feedback on performance and reward employees when it’s relevant with financial incentives or more responsibility. Often a simple mention of "thank you" or "well done" goes a long way.

Formally act on continued underperformance

If an employee continues to underperform, a manager should formally address this behavior. This lets the employee know the manager is serious and won’t tolerate attitudes not conducive to group dynamics. Furthermore, the members of a team who are indeed working hard will become disengaged if they see individuals slacking off without repercussions. 


Know the right time to cut ties

Letting someone go from a business is never ideal and should be treated as a last resort. But if an employee continues to flout the rules, underperform and spread negativity, cut the ties. Holding onto underachieving employees could result in a ripple effect of negativity, low morale and poor quality of work.  

Related: Radical Transparency Can Re-Energize a Company's Culture and Deliver Results

Abigail Phillips

WDM Group Editorial Director, Business Writer and Strategist

Abigail Phillips, 25, is an editorial director at San Diego-based WDM Group as well as a business writer and strategist. She is interested in the topics of women and millennials in business, leadership and sustainable development. 

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