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Here's How Managers Can Help Underperforming Employees

Performance rating on a sheet of paper with glasses and a calculator.

​When an employee can't keep up with his or her job, it impacts the person's manager and co-workers. The time managers spend coaching underperforming employees can add up to about 10 hours each workweek, according to staffing firm Robert Half. Underperformers can also hurt workplace morale and stifle innovation.

 "An underperforming employee can drag the whole team down," said Heather Nelson, SHRM-SCP, a senior manager in HR consulting at Portland General Electric in Oregon. Employees will notice that a co-worker is floundering and everyone else is picking up the slack, she said. "The team gets discouraged and productivity suffers, but no one ever talks about it openly."

However, replacing an underperforming employee has its drawbacks. The average cost-per-hire is $4,129, and the average time it takes to fill a given position is 42 days, according to the Society for Human Resource Management's Human Capital Benchmarking Report.

Any company that cares about growing and retaining talent should think twice about replacing an underperforming employee, said Carmen Alston, Ph.D., a senior talent management consultant and leadership coach at Right Management in Houston. Instead, she said, managers should work with employees to understand why they're struggling to succeed.

Be Clear About the Problem

Sometimes employees don't realize their performance is lacking because managers struggle to be open about the problems they're seeing, Alston said. "Instead of giving specific feedback about what's not working, how it's impacting the team and how it needs to change, managers will talk around it," she said. "Managers need to be very clear on the specific behavior that needs to change and why."

One way to start that dialogue, Nelson said, is for the manager to say, "I'm noticing that you're turning in assignments late. You were successful in this area before. From your perspective, what's going on? What's contributing to your poor performance?"

The employee might lack the skills or resources to do the job, Nelson said. If that's the issue, it falls on the manager to help the employee get the needed training and resources. However, there is one area that managers can't control: employee motivation. "If it's a lack of willingness, I can't change that," Nelson said. "You can only coach the willing, and if they don't want to be coached, it's impossible for them to get better at their job."

Develop an Improvement Plan

Be clear that there are potential consequences for not improving performance, Nelson said, including the employee being put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) or receiving a written warning.

If a PIP is necessary, make sure it includes concrete weekly milestones. To help the manager and employee get clarity on weekly goals, ask the employee to write down what he believes are the three most important tasks he's paid to do each week, said Anne Shoemaker, a women's executive coach and strategist based in Greensboro, N.C. The manager should also write down the employee's three most important tasks, and then the employee and manager can compare lists. The gaps in the two lists will show the employee what to focus on to be successful, Shoemaker said.

Check in with the employee weekly to discuss his action plan, Nelson said, and provide feedback on his performance. For instance, if the employee misses a meeting or fails to complete a necessary assignment on time, give him immediate feedback by saying, "You are doing this again. This is that behavior we are trying to improve. How are you going to course correct?" Throughout the process, document conversations, meetings and progress toward performance goals, Nelson said.

Consider pairing the underperforming employee with a peer who can provide support and guidance, said Kym Harris-Lee, an executive coach in Atlanta. Spell out what that support should look like. For instance, make it clear that there is a difference between asking a colleague where to find information versus asking a colleague to find the information for them. Reward the employee who is spending extra time helping the underperforming colleague.

Determine If the Problem Is New

With employers moving to remote work, some employees who were successful in the workplace might be struggling to complete their work remotely. If an employee is suddenly lagging, Shoemaker suggests asking "When you consider how you used to work when you were in the workplace, what is the best or worst part of working from home?" An employee's work could be suffering because he can't brainstorm with colleagues before meetings or can't access necessary files, she said.

Give employees strategies for working from home and ask if the employee needs a second computer monitor, noise-canceling headphones or an ergonomic chair, Nelson suggested.

Know When to Cut Ties

Unfortunately, improvement plans don't always work. If you've done everything you possibly could to provide support, coaching and tools and nothing has changed, it might be time let the employee go, Harris-Lee said.

Don't be afraid to ask the employee if she still wants her job, Alston said, by asking, "Is this job still a good fit for you?" If she says "yes," then ask what she's prepared to do to keep it. If she says "no," don't take it personally. "Help her move on by giving her permission to start looking for other opportunities."

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.


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