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5 Tips for Telling an Employee That They Need to Improve Performance

Updated: Jun 28

There comes a time in every manager’s life where they must discuss performance with an employee. Not everyone performs at 100% all the time, and not everyone is ideally suited to their job. There are innumerable reasons why an employee might be performing poorly.

While it’s essential to maintain sympathy and understand circumstances, a business is a business at the end of the day. It can’t run on pity and poor performance. When performance issues start to hamper the company, it’s helpful to tell an employee that they need to improve performance.

How can you handle this situation? Here are five tips to make it easier for both you as a manager and your employee.

1. Fully Understand Context

The first thing to do is do your research.

When you recognize that an employee is underperforming, where are you getting that impression? Is another employee over-performing and making the rest of the team look bad in comparison? Are there metrics pointing at sub-par performance, like sales numbers, number of tickets closed, or number of phone calls handled?

Sometimes, bias sneaks its way in. It’s easy to accidentally form an impression of poor performance when the employee does most of their work “invisibly” or when metrics don’t tell the whole story. For example:

  1. An employee who closes 25% fewer tickets than other employees in your customer service team might not be a poor performer. They may be exclusively working on the harder-to-handle tickets that require more time and care to solve their issues.

  2. A call center employee closing fewer calls than those around them might have a better sales record because they spend time addressing customer concerns. This example is why call metrics are often off-target.

  3. Inherent bias can mean that an employee is judged to be performing poorly when their performance is identical to their peers, but they stand out in some way, such as being one of the few minorities or women in the workplace.

Examining bias and forming data-driven conclusions is the first step towards understanding the context of an underperforming employee. From SHRM:

“For example, what might be the problem with labeling one employee as “too emotional” and another as “too rigid”? If you guessed possible gender and age discrimination, respectively, you are correct.”

Make sure to examine the source of your data. When metrics go wrong, many employees learn how to work within the system rather than cause a fuss. Those who choose to do what is correct rather than what is asked of them may stand out as poor performers when they point out flaws in the overall system.

On the other hand, this isn’t always the case. Metrics exist for a reason, and when they’re adequately engineered, those metrics point out fundamental flaws. Some employees will underperform. Your goal is to identify whether the issue is with the employee or the systems in place to measure them.

When the issue is with the employee underperforming, you must take action. Avoid delaying, as that will only exacerbate the problem and make the issue more difficult to handle later.

2. Determine Root Causes (Within Reason)

The other side of the coin is learning and understanding if anything is going wrong with the employee or their work situation that might inhibit their performance.

For example:

  1. An employee may be struggling with a health issue that leaves them in chronic pain, distracting them and reducing their ability to engage with their work.

  2. A family problem could be causing mental distress, anxiety, or other issues with the employee. It may be temporary, but a significant performance drop may be to be expected.

  3. The root of the problem may not be with the employee; an unscrupulous team leader taking their credit, for example, can make a stellar employee look terrible and the rest of the team made to look good.

Be careful about directly asking about these kinds of problems, however. Per SHRM:

“It is critical that managers do not inquire or speculate as to whether a physical or emotional condition or a work/life management issue may be giving rise to the performance deficiency. For example, if you ask an employee whether they are depressed, the worker may answer, ‘Not anymore. Now I have a perceived disability claim under the ADA.’”

Understanding context, as much as you’re able to, allows you to offer accommodations without causing discrimination issues. Instead of speculating or directly asking, instead, make an offer. “Is there anything we can do to help? We want you to succeed.”

It’s crucial that, if you’re offering assistance with issues, your company can provide support for those issues. It does you and your employee no good to offer, for example, grief counseling or a mental health support framework if your company doesn’t provide such services.

That said, it can often be valuable to allow some time off to avoid burnout, more flexibility in scheduling to account for childcare, or even a bonus to help with the financial hardship that is causing undue stress on an otherwise great employee.

While it might seem strange to hear “give your worst employee a bonus,” it legitimately can help in some situations. That said, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to an underperforming employee. Sometimes they aren’t capable of performing in their role, don’t have the skills required to do their job, or otherwise aren’t suitable for the position. Hiring managers can make mistakes or lie on their applications, and sometimes everything looks good on paper, but an employee isn’t motivated to work above the bare minimum.

3. Approach the Issue with Calm Empathy

The actual act of discussing a performance issue with an employee is difficult. Most managers are empathic people, and it’s unpleasant to have to discuss unpleasantries. Worse, sometimes, an under-performing employee feels like a personal mistake. If they’re your direct report, is it something you’re doing wrong? Is it your fault?

Many managers get defensive at this prospect. This situation is why there are a million horror stories about performance reviews. Relentlessly opposing managers, managers who get angry or defensive, managers who raise their voices; are signs of a poor process for discussing performance, delivering feedback, and helping employees improve.

Another common problem is managers who avoid the issue or can’t handle discussing it in person. Managers who send emails or paperwork to an employee discussing performance issues can come across as passive-aggressive or hiding behind an impersonal means of communication because they’re conflict-averse. If this sounds like you, it’s worth confronting the unpleasant prospect and learning how to deal with it.

While you can reach out to your employee to discuss performance issues via email or office communication channels like Slack, it’s essential to have an actual, face-to-face meeting (or as close as is possible for remote workers) to discuss the issues at hand.

“Set the expectation that you want to revisit the conversation with them tomorrow, once they’ve had time to process all of the information you’ve shared with them. It shouldn’t be a re-hashing of the original conversation. Still, it should give the employee a chance to ask clarifying questions once they’ve calmed down and can think more clearly.” – Jessica Donahue, PHR.

The truth is, when an employee is told they need to attend a meeting about their performance, they will immediately think about all the ways it can go wrong. They may worry about being fired and all of the cascading worries that go along with it. They may not be fully “present” at the meeting, so following up later, providing documentation with everything you want to discuss, and making a point of assuring them that they aren’t about to be fired is essential.

All of this primarily applies to first-time discussions. If you’ve had several meetings with an employee about their performance and they have not improved, it’s likely time to escalate or even fire the employee.

4. Speak on Specific Results, Not Intent

It can be valuable to review your thoughts as a manager before holding a meeting to discuss performance. It’s common to assume intent behind performance issues, even if you’re wildly off-base.

For example:

  1. “He’s a slacker; he just doesn’t care about the company.”

  2. “They aren’t trying.

  3. “She probably has issues at home affecting performance.”

  4. “They’re probably looking for another job and have checked out.”

In a business environment, performance is the goal, and intent doesn’t necessarily matter when you’re evaluating an underperforming employee. While you can offer them support, you shouldn’t attempt to assume or guess the reasoning.

One common reason why an employee under-performs is simply not knowing what the performance metrics are. For example, if your company doesn’t have a robust onboarding process, the employee may have essentially been fumbling in the dark the whole time, not quite knowing what to do.

Again, there are plenty of reasons why an employee might be underperforming, both with the employee themselves and the frameworks they operate within. Your job as their manager is to identify when the problem is with the employee, when it’s with a team or manager, and when it’s with the company’s frameworks. Then, do what you can to solve those issues.

Be careful about admitting fault, even if it’s an attempt to soften the blow, however. Again, from SHRM:

“…too often managers say things like, “It’s probably just as much our fault as it is yours,” to soften the blow. That can come back to haunt you. In fact, in a case I handled many years ago, an employee used a similar statement from his employer as evidence that the organization was at fault rather than the worker and that the reason given for terminating the employee was a pretext.”

Consider providing a packet with a record of your discussion with the employee. This method is a wise idea for several reasons. This packet discusses specific issues, why they’re issues, and what potential solutions might look like. It may help to explain your issues and to give them context. It also gives you a record of the discussion and the topics discussed, and it provides the employee with information to take home and process once the initial shock and anxiety wear off.

5. Try Coaching and Training, Not Punishment

The hardest part of a discussion about performance is figuring out how to guide an employee to improve. Coaching is both essential and very difficult to do. One of the defining features of a good manager is the ability to coach employees successfully.

It helps to begin by identifying where an employee is on the growth ladder.

Biz Library, for example, identifies five levels:

  1. Novices are the employees who need a lot of instruction and constructive feedback. Generally, this is the level where most employees start, and the best employees don’t stay in this phase long.

  2. Doers are the employees who put their training into practice but might not yet be dialed in on what the business expects. They need coaching to guide them to alignment with business objectives.

  3. Performers are the employees who are fully-fledged team members holding their own. When their performance falters, coaching should focus on feedback that nudges overall performance in the right direction.

  4. Masters are the employees who grow in both skill and institutional knowledge. These are also the people who tend to onboard and mentor new employees or provide helpful examples.

  5. Experts are the most valuable employees who become team leaders and managers themselves. They’re self-sufficient but still benefit from feedback and positive reinforcement.

Coaching may involve more training, advice, or instruction. It can also include using better employees as examples of what to do. It leverages feedback and positive reinforcement while also pointing out ways that an employee falls short and – this is critical – how to adjust to solve the problem.

Good coaching also involves the adage: “you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. Rather than tell your employees where they’re going wrong, ask leading questions and help them understand by thinking it through themselves.

By leveraging all of these strategies, you can help identify problems with underperforming employees and your established frameworks. Solving those problems comes naturally from there.


Discussing performance improvement with an employee is never an easy task, but it’s a critical one. As a manager, your approach can make all the difference between an employee who feels defeated and one who is motivated to improve. The five strategies we’ve outlined – understanding context, determining root causes, approaching with empathy, focusing on specific results, and coaching over punishing – provide a compassionate and effective framework for these tough conversations.

Remember, your role is to guide and support your team towards better performance, and sometimes that involves difficult but necessary discussions. It’s not just about pointing out flaws; it’s about fostering an environment where employees feel valued and understood, even when there’s room for improvement.

If you found these tips helpful and wish to become a more effective leader who empowers their team to achieve their best, take action today. Don’t let another performance review go by feeling unprepared. 

Equip yourself with the tools and skills to inspire excellence in your team. Contact us now – let’s make every employee’s success your business’s success.

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