How to deal with an underperforming coworker

One of my coworkers is underperforming, which creates more work for me. I give him feedback and he gets defensive. I then get frustrated and nothing changes.

Firstly, why is he underperforming and is this a new development? As his manager, you need to check that there is not some serious issue present. Ask him how he has been going lately at work and how he is coping. Many workers are finding it tough during COVID-19 lockdowns. Alternatively, he may be undergoing health issues or some other personal issue which is affecting his ability.

Secondly, check that there is no miscommunication about what tasks he has been allocated, what the required outcomes are or what is expected of him. Sometimes these important factors are left to the “vibe” and are not explicitly stated.

Do you think there is a skill gap? Does he not have the abilities necessary for the job he is supposed to do? If so can this be fixed through training or mentoring? Or is he in the wrong job?

If that’s not the case, or you can’t identify an external cause, then closer management of his performance is needed. A lot of managers are not good at managing performance and giving feedback. Here are some tips.

Don’t only give negative feedback

Some managers don’t give feedback at all until things go wrong and then it’s all negative. Give positive feedback regularly when it’s deserved. If employees only associate feedback sessions with bad news, they will be apprehensive in the meeting and not open to learning or brainstorming what could be done better.  

Some management researchers criticize the “compliment sandwich”, when a manager starts with a complement to soften the blow before giving the critical feedback. They believe it confuses the message.

There is a time for giving positive and negative feedback together, however, and that is at the regular (usually annual) formal performance review. The employee is expecting to go through their strengths and weaknesses on that occasion.

When you need to give negative feedback about a specific issue, however, focus on the message you want to convey and the outcome you want.

Be specific in your feedback

Don’t just say “Great job” or “that report was not up to standard”. Be specific about what you have noticed and needs to change.

For example: “I noticed that you have been late with your last 3 reports. I would like you to get your reports to me at least 48 hours before they are due so that I can review them.”

Focus on the behaviour not the person. Identify what behaviour is causing the difficulty and ask them what they could do instead.

If you feel that they are really not getting the message, try to explain why their behaviour is a problem.

Use a WISH statement –

When you deliver your reports late

I have to review them in a hurry and they don’t get enough attention

So I would like for your reports to arrive on time.

How could you make that happen?

Check that they have understood the message

If they can suggest some changes to their behaviour in response to your WISH statement, that’s great. Of course they may not come up with anything, so it’s a good idea for you to have some strategies in your back pocket. The goals you set together should be SMART:

Specific – What, who and how must be done

Measurable –  What does success look like? How is it measured?

Achievable – Is it something that can be done or is it a vague wish?

Realistic – will he really be able to do it or is it too ambitious?

Time based – what are the deadlines?  

At the end of the meeting, repeat what you have agreed, and help him to process the new behaviour by asking what he is going to do first, and when.

Don’t just walk away and forget about the goals you have agreed. Reinforce them through reminders and catch ups and in regular performance meetings.

If this doesn’t work:

Unfortunately some employees may not respond to this approach and may exhibit behaviours which make them difficult to manage. You may need to set up a formal performance management process. That will be dealt with in a future article.

So you had that conversation with Anne about her performance at work and it hasn’t led to any improvement. You gave her examples of the behaviour that is creating difficulties, and explained why it needed to change. You offered her support, set up agreed goals with a timeline and made sure that she didn’t have a health problem or personal issue that was affecting her performance. When you ask her how she thinks she is going, she doesn’t seem to see a problem and her work is still poor.

It’s time to organise a meeting about her performance. You have had meetings before, but this is more formal. Let her know the reason for the meeting in advance so she can prepare. If you will be going through specific documents, provide copies to her before the meeting. Tell her she can bring a support person if she wishes, to support and observe, not to speak on their behalf.

It’s important that you:

  • keep this meeting confidential and hold it away from other employees.
  • clearly describe the problem and refer to specific examples
  • explain the impact on the business and her colleagues
  • explain the outcomes you want to achieve from the meeting
  • give the employee an opportunity to respond and give you their view of the situation
  • listen and ask questions
  • stay relaxed and respectful
  • outline what may happen if the performance does not improve within a reasonable time (for example demotion or dismissal)
  • set a meeting date at the end of that period to review progress.
  • take notes of what is said and follow up with an email or letter confirming what was said and agreed. Keep these as a record.

Make sure you follow up with what you have agreed to do, and check in with them regularly. Give feedback and encouragement where appropriate.

At your next meeting, acknowledge any progress made and focus on what more needs to be done.

What is a reasonable time in which to improve? This will depend on the employee’s role and the duties they perform, as well as the change you are expecting to see. Update your documentation to specify:

  • what has been satisfactory to date and what has not
  • what support is being/will be provided
  • what is expected from the employee within a timeframe
  • when her performance will be reviewed again.

You should each keep a copy of the documentation, signed by each of you.

Once the performance has improved to a satisfactory level, acknowledge that the issue has been resolved and discuss how the improvements will be maintained. Performance should be reviewed regularly for all employees.

If her performance doesn’t improve after a reasonable period, you may wish to issue a formal written warning that if it does not meet the required standard by a certain date, she may be demoted or dismissed.

These are serious steps which could be challenged and you will need to consider what justification you have for them. 

We hope this article has provided guidance on how to deal with an underperforming coworker. More information is available from the Fair Work Ombudsman website.


Christa Ludlow is a Principal Consultant with Weir Consulting (National)  and is a lawyer,  qualified coach and mediator.  She provides workplace conflict resolution, investigationcoaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors.