An employee lying back relaxing on the hands of a large clock, symbolising an underperforming employee.
Image: © Nuthawut/

What if an employee isn’t pulling their weight?

15 Mar 2023

If a worker is underperforming, it can be a tricky situation to navigate. HR consultant Dara O’Leary offers some tips for managers.

Dealing with an employee who isn’t pulling their weight can be a delicate and challenging situation. It can cause other employees to pick up their slack, deadlines to be missed or work quality to fall short.

Managers need to address this situation quickly before it gets out of hand, but it needs to be done in a constructive, fair, transparent and professional manner.

Dara O’Leary is a HR consultant with more than 20 years’ experience across multiple industry sectors. She shared some steps that managers can take in order to address the issue of an underperforming employee.

Identify the cause

Before taking any action, O’Leary said it’s important to identify the root cause of the employee’s underperformance. This can be addressed through regular one-to-one meetings with the employee.

“Are they lacking the necessary skills or training? Are there personal issues that are affecting their work? Are they overloaded with work or unclear about their priorities? It could be due to a lack of skills or training, personal issues or a lack of motivation,” she said.

“Knowing the reasons can help you address the problem more effectively.”

Communicate expectations

After you have identified the cause, it’s important to communicate clearly with the employee what your expectations are for them, such as any relevant KPIs, and make sure they understand these expectations.

“Review their job description and responsibilities and have a conversation with them about what they are expected to achieve and the standards they need to meet. Have SMART goals in place to ensure there is no ambiguity. These should be achievable and specific to the employee’s role and responsibilities,” she said.

“Give continuous ongoing feedback on their performance, giving specific examples using the AID model. What is the behaviour you have observed, what is the impact and what do you want them to continue doing or to do differently moving forward? Be specific about what they need to do differently and how their performance will be measured.”

Offer them support

It’s one thing to set expectations, but a manager should also offer support and resources to help them improve their performance, rather than leave them to tackle it on their own.

This could include additional training or mentoring if you know the root cause is to do with a knowledge gap, or some time off to deal with personal issues that are impacting their performance.

“Work with the employee to create a performance improvement plan that outlines specific goals, timelines and measurable outcomes,” said O’Leary.

“Regularly check in with the employee to monitor their progress and provide feedback on their performance. Acknowledge progress and celebrate successes, but also provide constructive feedback on areas where they need to improve.”

What to do next

Hopefully these steps will lead an employee back onto the right road. However, there’s a chance that after going through this process, the worker in question may still be underperforming. If this is the case, O’Leary said disciplinary action may be needed as a last resort.

“This could include a verbal warning, written warning or ultimately termination of employment. This should only be taken after following your company’s policies and procedures for performance management and seeking advice from HR and/or legal advice,” she said.

“It’s important to approach the situation with empathy and a willingness to support the employee to improve, while also holding them accountable for their performance.”

She added that if the worker is willing to make the necessary changes, they can often turn things around and become a valuable member of the team. “However, if they are unwilling to improve, it may be necessary to take more serious action to protect the productivity and morale of the team as a whole.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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