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Dealing with underperformance

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If you are meeting regularly with your employee, setting clear objectives and performance standards, and giving frequent feedback, you will minimise the possibility of underperformance. Nevertheless, there will be occasions where you will need to address under-performance. If you don’t, you’re letting the employee down by failing to clarify where they need to improve. The underperformance is unlikely to change.

The guidance below deals with situations where an employee has completed their probationary period. If there is poor performance during the probationary period, you should deal with it as a probation matter. See Induction and probation.

First steps

The first steps will be to clarify performance standards and to provide support and coaching. It may simply be the case that you were not clear enough as to what was needed. In many cases, the performance problem will rectify itself at this stage.

The informal meeting

If the performance problems persist, you will need to conduct an informal meeting to discuss your concerns.

Below are some ideas on how you might handle a meeting where you need to discuss performance problems. 


It may help to:

  • list the main areas of concern and prioritise them
  • think of examples of when the employee’s performance has caused concern and why
  • think about some positive aspects of the employee’s performance – it’s easier to receive criticism if it’s balanced by some positive feedback.


Try something like: ‘I think this has been quite a difficult period with a number of challenges. The purpose of the meeting today is to look at what has gone well, what not so well and how we can deal with any difficulties’.

Try and keep the meeting supportive and not adversarial – you’re trying to look for ways to improve the employee’s performance and you will achieve this most effectively if the discussion remains constructive.


You should ask the employee to give feedback (self-appraise) on their own performance. However, sometimes when an employee is not performing well, they may be defensive and unwilling to give a view on their performance. They may also not realise there is a problem. Give the employee the opportunity to self-appraise, but be prepared to be more directive in giving feedback if needed.

You should also give the employee the opportunity to explain any reasons for difficulties in doing their job – there may be personal circumstances of which you’re not aware, for example.


Give specific instances of concern and concentrate on the employee’s performance, not personality. For example, ‘you take a slapdash approach to your work’ is not only likely to invoke a defensive response of ‘no I don’t!’, it’s also not specific.

It’s much better to give examples, such as: ‘I am concerned that on (date), you didn’t send out all the documentation to the conference delegates. As a result, they had less than a week to register for the conference. We spoke about this at the time and I want to discuss how things have gone since then’. This gives you the opportunity either to confirm that improvements have occurred, or that the same behaviour is being displayed. Either way, you should continue to give specific examples for discussion. 

Think about what the employee can cope with – if your point has been accepted, it may be inappropriate to give further examples of poor performance.

Planning targets for the future

Be specific about what you want the employee to do next and over what period. Sometimes, there are certain behaviours that are causing the poor performance. You might therefore want to include some objectives about behaviour, as well as about specific tasks to be achieved. For example, if communication is a problem, you might have targets of: ‘show respect and courtesy to others at all times and listen attentively’, or: ‘keep manager informed on a weekly basis about progress with updating the contacts database’.

You must also be clear what will happen if performance doesn’t improve over the review period. If you may proceed to a formal meeting under your disciplinary procedure (or capability procedure if you have one), you’ll need to say so.

Writing up the notes of the meeting

Your notes need to be specific as to the concerns, what will be done by each of you to address them, the timescale for improvement and when you will meet again.

Dealing with continuing poor performance

If you have followed through informal action with an employee, and their performance has not improved, you may get to the stage where you need to follow your formal disciplinary (or capability procedure if you have one), on the grounds of poor performance.

You must first send or give the employee a written statement of your specific concerns about their performance. The letter should invite the employee to a meeting to discuss the concerns. The employee has the right to be accompanied by a work colleague or trade union representative at the meeting.

At the meeting, you should discuss your ongoing concerns.

After the meeting and after considering the employee’s views, you may decide to issue a performance improvement note/first formal warning. This would be the first stage of your disciplinary procedure.

The performance improvement note should set out:

  • the performance problem
  • the improvement that is required
  • the timescale for achieving this improvement
  • a review date
  • any support you will provide to assist the employee.

The employee should be informed in writing that:

  • the note represents the first stage of the formal disciplinary procedure, on account of poor performance
  • failure to improve could lead to a final written warning and, ultimately, dismissal.

The employee should be given the right to appeal the decision.

A copy of the note should be kept and used as the basis for monitoring and reviewing performance over a specified period (eg three to six months).

Example of how to deal with poor performance

A member of your accounts staff makes several mistakes on invoices. In an informal meeting, you bring specific mistakes to his attention. Your tone is supportive to the employee, but firm and honest about the difference between the employee’s performance and your expectations. You listen to reasons the employee gives and discuss how to deal with any problems, whilst still being clear that current performance is not acceptable.

You gain the employee’s agreement that there is a problem (ie a gap between their performance and the required performance). You ask the employee what support they need to improve and agree to put in place the one-to-one coaching the employee suggests. In a calm but firm tone, you make sure that the employee understands that if the accuracy does not improve, you will proceed to the disciplinary procedure on the grounds of poor performance. You confirm the meeting in writing and give the employee a copy, so that everything is a clear as possible.

The mistakes continue. You therefore send a written statement to the employee, explaining your concerns. The written statement invites the employee to a disciplinary meeting and informs him of his right to be accompanied by a work colleague or employee representative. At the meeting, you remind the employee of your earlier informal discussion and that he and you agreed at this stage that there was a problem with his performance. You give further examples of the specific mistakes.

The employee does not give a satisfactory explanation for the mistakes, so after the meeting, you decide to issue an improvement note setting out: the problem, the improvement required, the timescale for improvement, the support available and a review date. You inform the employee that a failure to improve may lead to a final written warning, but emphasise also that agreed support will be provided to the employee to help him achieve the required standard.

Dismissal on the grounds of capability

If, ultimately and after warnings, the employee’s performance does not improve and there is no possibility to redeploy the employee, or they do not agree to this, you can dismiss the employee on the grounds of capability. Please note that dismissal without prior warnings under your procedure is unlikely to be found to be fair in an employment tribunal. You also need to comply with your disciplinary procedure (or specific capability procedure, if you have one). See Disciplinary matters. If there is a more junior job that the employee may be able and willing to do, you may wish to discuss this with them as an alternative to dismissal. However, any move to a more junior job needs be by mutual agreement. The change should be documented in writing. 

Further information

Page last edited Apr 07, 2022

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