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How to have discussions with low-performing employees

12 min read

Awkward discussions are awkward for a reason. Be it to breakup with someone, reject an application over call, or highlight someone’s mistakes.

Talking to an employee about his poor performance is no different. It can be stressful and potentially make you the bad guy, which is why most managers either fire underperforming employees or delay the conversation for as long as possible.

But the earlier you have these difficult yet formative discussions, the better it will be for the employee, the team and the company.

Let’s make the evaluation simpler-

If the underperforming employee is a new joiner or perhaps a couple of months into employment, you might want to consider if this was a wrong hire. However, if you find a previously high-performing employee in the dock, there could be underlying reasons untouched by the company or even you as his manager.

We have been talking about poor performing employees for a while.

But, What is poor performance?

Very often, there is a mismatch between what managers and employees think is important when it comes to performance. Hence, making priorities known and offering a clear job description can make all the difference.

Poor performance isn’t merely related to the tasks and responsibilities of an employee. It can also refer to their behavioural issues at the workplace that negatively impacts their co-workers. Usually, a low-performing employee is one who fails to achieve their goals and expectations.

Now that this is sorted, there can be intentional and unintentional reasons behind an employee’s underperformance. What are these

Low Performing Employee Discussion Topics

So, what can you do about each of these? Act. Sooner than later.

And before taking any decision, open communication. They don’t say “communication solves problems” for nothing. It works. And during this conversation, listen 80%, talk 20% (4:1). Engaging in a dialogue instead of issuing an order will pave way for better understanding and expected outcomes. What’s more? Your employees will appreciate the invitation to collaborate to improve their performance and your interest and involvement in finding a solution.

You want your employees to feel that you care for their personal growth and aren’t just threatened with consequences. What you want is to find the balance between a supporting coach and a strict boss.


The way you approach your problems will speak volumes for the kind of manager you choose to be.

Management Tips for Low Performing Employees

How to address the low performance of an employee?

Before the meeting:

  1. Reflect on your bit (Question yourself) It is rare that it is all the subordinate’s fault just as rare it is to be all the boss’s. Before approaching the employee to give a lecture, focus on your possible role in their underperformance. Check if you are practising bias, unclear about your expectations, assigning too much work, setting unrealistic targets or not present when they need your support/guidance.
  2. Check your emotions (Leave anger at the doorstep): You can’t accept poor performance as a manager. Agreed. It can also frustrate you if this has been happening for a while. Understood. But when you are walking into a room to discuss an employee’s low performance, be sure to come from a place of support. Using the right language and tone is paramount. Accusing them isn’t going to help.
  3. Intimate the employee (He might not be aware of his poor performance): Calling an employee out of the blue to talk about the problem might come to them as a shock, if they hadn’t realized it earlier themselves. You can start with a simple message on Teams or an email to schedule a meeting discussing this problem.
  4. Be prepared (have examples at hand in case the employee refuses to accept his missed goals): Accepting mistakes isn’t easy. And employees might downright deny any of their wrongdoings. Instead of saying that they waste time at the office, have evidence to back your claim. You can note their long breaks, time spent on personal calls, late logins and more. Prepare for such situations and have resources that support your statements. This can be reduced Google rankings, uncompleted work that was mentioned under Goals in their performance management portals, and more. In certain instances, employees might also try to take credit for others’ work. Stay informed.
  5. Schedule the one-on-one meeting (keep it confidential): No one needs to know that a specific employee isn’t matching up to his perceived potential and targets. And no one’s okay to share this with others too. Keep the conversation as confidential as possible and avoid the embarrassment the employee might have to face. After mutually deciding a date and time, mark your calendars for a one-on-one meeting.

During the meeting:

  1. Ask before telling (follow the 4:1 ratio): You are angry that the employee isn’t performing well. You want to highlight their negatives. But before you do this, ask what’s hindering their potential. Let them talk about why their performance isn’t up to the mark, and why they aren’t able to reach their goals.
  2. Talk to help, not blame (Ask them to assess themselves): Steer clear of the blame game. This is not the place to exercise power but rather to support employees in improving themselves.
  3. Offer clear feedback (take the help of templates): While talking about an employee’s performance, it is important to give clear and detailed feedback. This not just helps them understand how they can fill the gaps but also portrays you as a caring manager who wants their well-being rather than one eager to fire.
  4. Show them their role in the big picture: If the covid era has taught us anything, then it is that people are driven by purpose. Performance increases substantially when employees know where their work fits in with the company’s vision and how they are contributing to it. Tell them how their unachieved goals are stopping the company from growing.
  5. Create an action map together (including clear goals and deadlines): Once you identify the problems, the next step requires you to finalize the targets and more, which are realistic and achievable. Ensure both the manager and the employee are involved in this. Do not rush and repeat the earlier mistakes. Ask the employees if they are okay with the new goals and what you can do to help achieve them better and faster. Offer the resources needed, including any training, courses, and tech tools.
  6. Document to the rescue: As soon as the conversation starts, ensure everything is noted or recorded. It can be any agreements and disagreements, goals discussed, targets missed, improvements considered and more. This can serve as a repository for both the manager and the employee post the evaluation period and in potential lawsuits if the employee denies having the conversation completely or parts of it.

After the meeting:

  1. Start measuring: Schedule 1:1s twice weekly to assess improvement regularly and offer support wherever required. Monitor and track the growth journey.
  2. Ask if you have missed anything (feedback on your support): It is possible that the employee silently accepted your listed goals even though they didn’t agree with them. They might have even felt intimidated. Post the discussion, message them informally and ask how you performed in helping them.
  3. Begin training classes: Once you know where the gaps lie, start working on the training sessions requested by the employee earlier. Offer all necessary in-house and external courses vital to polish their skills and hit targets.
  4. Understand what stems their motivation (understand if they are in the right roles): More often than not, employees work in departments that don’t fuel their interest or perhaps the role isn’t challenging enough. As a manager, it is upon you to find what motivates them and whether their current position pushes them in that direction.
  5. Reward improvement: Everyone likes to be appreciated for the work they do; however small that might be. And rewarding a previously underperforming employee’s improvement can immensely affect their work.

What if the underperformance continues?

If you find the employee choosing not to work on his weaknesses and ignoring the previous performance improvement discussion, he/she might not be suitable for the role anymore. However, you may choose to give a warning with a specific duration of time to correct his/her behavior and reach the goals or let them get off the bus.


Unsatisfactory performance of an employee can impact the entire team. Nipping it in the bud at an early stage can help dodge the inevitable. As a manager, you can spot poor performance, be aware of your employees’ engagement levels and tackle the issues through consistent 1-on-1s. However, keeping track of these meetings, ensuring you don’t miss certain direct reports and attending them on time can be chaotic. But not with Keka. Streamline your managerial work, get reminders of your 1-on-1s and help employees do their best by switching to Keka.

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    Meet the author

    Dr. Nishat Afzal

    Content Writer

    A dentist by profession and writer by choice, Nishat is the Communications Manager and Content Writer at Keka Technologies. A literature lover and a religious fan of Ruskin Bond, her magic works best in creating pieces that involve story-telling, emotional punches, facts & current affairs. If not found sewing letters together to form impactful phrases, Nishat can be seen doing RCTs, crocheting or eating to her heart's content.


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