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Addressing employee underperformance the right way

By Jack Campbell | |5 minute read
Addressing Employee Underperformance The Right Way

Addressing underperformance is a tough yet essential part of business. Here are some tips for getting it right.

Everyone wants top performers in their business. However, the reality is that many factors are at play, and not everyone has the capacity to be at 100 per cent all the time.

Organisational psychologist Paige Williams highlighted how deeper-rooted issues may be influencing employee performance: “Activity but no progress, meetings with no follow-up, confused responsibilities, impossible demands, missed milestones, low morale, poor engagement, talent drain – does this sound familiar?”


“These are the symptoms of the epidemic of underperformance in organisations today, and it’s driven by issues with accountability. What I’ve observed and experienced about underperformance related to issues with accountability is that it is avoidable. More often than not, there is capacity, motivation, and a genuine desire to do better, but the fog of accountability issues prevents these qualities from shining through. And that’s because without accountability, we waste time, effort and energy in a fog of confusion and dysfunction. So how can we clear the fog?”

She continued: “By reducing confusion in the language and understanding of accountability so that people feel confident having conversations about accountability because they set them up for success, and it becomes a normal part of the ways of working, culture and context of teams.”

In more extreme circumstances, an employee may have been given warnings and time to turn poor performance around yet still exhibit poor behaviours. This is when further intervention may be necessary.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has guidelines on how to deal with these issues. One path that may be worth exploring is a performance system.

Some of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s considerations for this approach are:

  • Expectations: Discuss your performance system during induction, training and in staff communications – this will help make performance a regular part of workplace conversations.
  • Template agreements: Create a simple performance agreement template for your workplace.
  • Discussions: Meet with employees to set clear performance expectations and discuss and record their individual performance goals and training needs.
  • Feedback: Monitor employees’ performance and provide regular, specific feedback, in a timely manner, about things they do well and things they can improve on.
  • Training: Support employees’ skills and performance through training, coaching, and mentoring.
  • Review: Conduct performance reviews every few months. Track employee performance against the agreed goals and set new goals.
  • Self-review: Ask employees to complete a short self-review ahead of the performance review – this helps employees feel more involved with and committed to the process.
  • Reward: Recognise and reward employees who do a good job. This doesn’t have to be a financial reward. Many employees appreciate a simple acknowledgement of their efforts or achievements.

To help decrease the chances of having to have this awkward conversation in the first place, employers should look to develop their team’s capabilities continuously.

An important starting point is building trust. Research shows trust can improve organisational alignment, efficiency, engagement, and productivity. In fact, 96 per cent of engaged employees trust management, while 46 per cent of disengaged employees trust management.

Furthermore, trustworthy workplaces reported 50 per cent higher employee productivity, 106 per cent more energy at work, and 13 per cent fewer sick days. Perhaps most shockingly, high-trust companies outperform companies with low trust levels by 186 per cent.

Williams commented: “Rarely do we jump off a trust cliff: like an eroding rock face, trust slips over time, as we let expectations of ourselves and others slide. And when it does, other important things slip too – things like encouraging inclusive behaviours, hearing diverse perspectives, calling out toxic culture, and modelling human-centred leadership.”

“Building trust is an invitation to integrity and honour – an invitation that requires truth and honesty, vulnerability and strength, love and the courage to commit. Without it, we have no solid ground to walk on.”

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.