Practical Measures to Consider Before Terminating an Underperforming Employee

People Meeting

Parting ways with an employee is not only a difficult task for any manager, but can be stressful, time-consuming, and may negatively impact the morale of your team members.  You have the tricky task of discussing an employee’s areas of weakness and then figuring out how to correct them.

Immediate termination should be reserved for situations where the employee has engaged in willful misconduct, but what do you do when an otherwise good employee isn’t performing to standard?  Is it possible or worthwhile to try and improve performance to address concerns and if so, for how long should one attempt to do so before moving in a different direction?  This is a common challenge for managers and the time and effort it takes to turn around problematic behaviour can fracture working relationships and even undermine the overall team.

Managing out an underperforming employee is a key tactic in dealing with an employee’s weaknesses rather than simply firing them. Of course, if you are already in the habit of providing regular feedback then there should be no performance review surprises especially if you are regularly setting clear expectations.

Key points to consider:

Don’t Ignore the Problem

Very few people enjoy confrontation.  At times it may feel easier to just disregard the problem and put off dealing with it until another time or hope that the situation will resolve itself.  Unfortunately, choosing to ignore the signs and not acting towards addressing employee issues will likely have adverse consequences for your organization.  These include:

  • Lower overall employee morale
  • Reduced productivity
  • Increased work pressure on high performers
  • Lack of confidence or trust in management
  • Loss of revenue

Take measures as soon as possible to address underperformers. Managers should facilitate the opportunity for every employee to succeed as this is a critical part of a leader’s role. 

Determine the Cause of Poor Performance

Before you talk to the employee, identify areas where you as the manager may have contributed to their underachievement.  Could it be that you haven’t provided clear direction or given them enough feedback?  Have you coached them through the probationary period or allowed them to figure everything out for themselves resulting in bad habits being formed?

If you feel you have done everything to set them up for success, consider the reasons why the employee is underperforming and whether there are any obstacles in their way.  We all have personal lives and at times are forced to deal with issues that unfortunately may distract us at work. Are these temporary and is there an employee assistance program that can be offered? Perhaps underperformance is due to a lack of resources for example, inadequate SOP’s, training material or insufficient tools and equipment.  It could be that the employee simply doesn’t have the potential to develop the necessary skills. This is a concern in that you are paying the employee to perform a job and need them to deliver results.

Identify the reasons why the employee may be underperforming and determine if these can be resolved or addressed. Be realistic and honest with your assessment. Performance issues or gaps will not solve themselves so act accordingly.

Have the Meeting

Explain the reason for the discussion and clearly express your concerns.  Be specific about what you have seen or any other facts that may be cause for concern. Ask them questions to develop the conversation such as: “What is your greatest obstacle? How can you improve? What can you do differently next time? What steps do you think you should take?”

It’s important to encourage the employee to come up with self recommendations so that they buy-in to next steps.  If they acknowledge there’s a problem and you see eagerness to improve, chances are that you will be able to work together to improve the situation.  Ask the employee if there are any resources you can provide that will help them develop missing skills and attain goals.  Establish and agree on an action plan and timeline on how to proceed and what steps need to be taken.  Set a follow up-date to meet again and review progress.  Remember to be clear and direct, but also supportive by expressing your confidence in their ability to make progress and positive changes.

Follow Through on Commitments

Deliver what you said you would do whether it’s scheduling the employee to attend training, replacing broken equipment, or providing additional tools and resources that can help them improve.  By following through, you are forcing accountability for the performance outcome.

Hold Regular Check-ins

Consistent follow up not only provides support but helps to build relationships and improve engagement.  The employee’s performance is unlikely to change overnight, and ongoing support and encouragement is essential. Just because an employee looks busy doesn’t mean they are producing good work.  Managers should make a habit of regularly monitoring work progress and quality by setting a weekly routine to meet with the employee.  This way you will know what momentum is being made toward the goals established, and where the employee may be stalled or is still falling short.  You can then determine if further training and development is required. Be sure to provide positive encouragement and praise when the employee has made meaningful progress but also be honest with yourself when progress is lacking.

Determine Next Steps

If the underperformer fails to improve after you have provided additional training and support, you will need to decide on next steps.  This involves following your company’s disciplinary process.  Performance reviews shouldn’t be a surprise to the employee if there have been regular coaching discussions and feedback during your one-on-one meetings.  This is never easy but often the best option for both the employee and organization. Documentation is crucial and an important part in the process as it provides proof of the discussion and helps eliminate the potential for any miscommunication.

Consider Termination When Necessary

If improvement efforts have failed and the employee is still not able or willing to perform, then you will need to end the employment relationship.  When you have taken steps to identify and address performance through support and management and there is still no progress, then resignation or termination will be a logical next step.  The employee will likely understand or accept that it’s time for them to move on.

Contact Bridge Legal and HR Solutions for practical advice and guidance. For more information contact (647) 794-5442 or 

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