Legal Guides

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How to deal with an underperforming employee

The majority of successful organisations usually have to rely on their employees working together to achieve a common goal. The team must also believe in the company’s vision. However, completing a work project can be challenging if one or several members of staff fail to play their part.

If an employee is under-achieving, the manager may decide to wait before acting to give them an opportunity to improve over time. However, it is nearly always advisable to acknowledge the problem and work things out with the individual concerned.   

If you are a manager, there are a number of things you should do first.

1.   Assess the employee’s long-term performance

You should determine whether the employee’s underperformance is consistent or just a recent occurrence. Check and compare their work results as this may provide you with some insights into why they are having difficulties and how you can support them. 

2.   Communicate and listen to their explanation

Discussing matters with the concerned employee may help clear things up. Make sure you listen to their point of view on the relevant issue. Usually, people will take steps to better themselves at work; you may only need to give them a reminder and guide them on how to improve their output.   

3.   Help employees set improvement goals

You can help employees improve their performance by setting achievable goals. However, it is essential that you consider the individual’s input when establishing these objectives. If you impose them unilaterally, the employee may feel that you are setting them up for failure. 

4.   Set time frames and plan follow-ups

After agreeing upon goals, you need to check their progress on a regular basis. This will help ensure that everything is kept on track and you can overcome any potential obstacles. The follow-ups may only take up 15 minutes of your time.

5.   Keep employees motivated

Motivation is a powerful incentive for many employees. As a manager, you need to motivate each team member; some may prefer financial rewards while others will be content with public praise.

However, there may be issues within your organisation which could potentially prevent your employees from performing at their best. Whilst not all your changes will bear fruit overnight, taking steps can assure your employees that their concerns are being addressed. However, you must make it clear that any subsequent under-performance will be dealt with severely. 

6.   Provide relevant training

Occasionally, a team member will need to undergo further training to help improve their performance. If you think the employee is worth the investment, provide it. If required, you could even bring in outside agencies to help train your team. 

How to let an employee go

No matter how hard you try to support an employee, it is sometimes best to let them go, especially if they are consistently failing to improve despite your guidance and training.

There are various legal ways to dismiss an employee

  1. Employees with less than two years’ service can be dismissed by giving due notice. However, you have the option of conducting a formal procedure.
  2. You can pay an employee to agree to leave the company without making any claims or pursuing formal proceedings. This method often applies to senior employees.
  3. The third method is a formal process that will give the employee concerned ample time to improve their performance. HR will need to intervene and this may take some time. The steps include: 
  • Talking to the employee and establishing the reasons for their underperformance. Begin the process with an informal meeting and discuss why their performance has dropped. Cite specific examples and plan the expected improvements within a reasonable time frame. Before their performance review, you should provide any necessary support or training. Don’t forget to keep a written record of the discussion and agreed plans, and send a copy to the employee.
  • Setting a time limit if possible. If there has been no improvement, you should proceed with the formal process. If you have a company performance policy, you need to enforce it. Arrange another meeting or two to set performance goals or check the employee’s progress. If there is still little or no improvement, issue a warning. You can also choose to dismiss the individual if they have less than two years’ service. Otherwise, you should inform them in writing that they are under a formal performance review and unless they meet the required standards, dismissal may follow.
  • Making careful and written records. You must keep a record of every meeting and discussion, including the agreed progress criteria and time frame. These records will confirm that the employee has fully understood what was agreed upon.
  • Informing the employee of their impending dismissal. If you have considered releasing the employee, try meeting with them first and explain your position. Advise them that they can appeal against the dismissal. Once you have formally notified the employee, they can work their notice period or be paid off. This will depend on their employment contract.   


Many managers are not comfortable letting a team member go, but it is sometimes necessary, especially if they are constantly underperforming. Nevertheless, you can still provide them with an opportunity to improve. Talk to them directly and devise ways in which they can improve within a specified time frame. There must be mutual agreement as the employee may think that the required performance criteria are unfair. If there is no improvement despite repeated formal warnings, you have the right to dismiss them from your company. 

Article written and contributed by Stacey Aston of Astons Solicitors

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances. It is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. If specific advice is required in connection with any of the matters covered above, please speak to Astons Solicitors directly.

Published on 27th July 2021
(Last updated 27th July 2021)

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