9 Reasons Why Employees Underperform at Work


Julie NicholdsOperations Director at Loch Associates Group

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Addressing underperformance is one of the most challenging aspects of managing employees or teams. As well as being a difficult issue to broach, underperformance can also have various root causes and be challenging to gauge. The tools we use to judge productivity and performance levels aren't always fair, and don't take every circumstance into account.

Article 5 Minutes
9 Reasons Why Employees Underperform at Work

While dealing with underperforming employees can be challenging, if left unaddressed, it can have a detrimental effect on morale and company culture, and set a poor example for others. By putting the right processes in place, you can manage staff with greater confidence, and address underperformance tactfully and productively.

Reasons for underperformance

To deal with underperforming employees effectively, you first need to understand why people's performance dip, and where it's necessary to intervene. What's important to remember is that poor performance is rarely a conscious choice. Allowing your performance to dip noticeably will put your job at risk, something most people are keen to avoid.

Underperformance is relative, however, and not synonymous with incompetence. It may mean someone falling below their usual levels, or someone not delivering to the levels demanded by the business. While many of these are personal and behavioral issues, you must be ready to address them and take action where they can't be resolved.

1. Motivation

One of the most common reasons for underperformance is a lack of motivation. This can have several sources:

  • Employees may have been at the company for a long time and lost interest in their work
  • They may lack motivation from their managers and peers
  • They may feel they deserve more money for the work they're doing
  • They may not enjoy the role they occupy

2. Focus and concentration

Another common problem leading to underperformance is an inability to focus. For some people, this can be a result of behavioral or medical issues. For others, this may be a case of a noisy or distracting working environment, problems which need to be raised and addressed where possible.

3. Interpersonal issues

Conflict between team members or employees and management can create tension, and lead to people becoming distracted or disillusioned. The most serious instances of interpersonal issues may involve things like bullying or harassment and need to be dealt with swiftly.

4. Capability

Sometimes an employee ends up in a position they simply aren't capable of fulfilling. This can be the result of a bad hiring process, a promotion not working out, or roles and responsibilities being shifted. Sometimes, they have the capabilities to perform the role, but the learning they're required to do piles on the pressure, and causes them to perform poorly.

5. Suitability

A talented employee may be perfectly capable of fulfilling their role, but not best suited to it. They may have taken the job because they needed work, rather than having a passion for it, or the realities of the role may be different from what they expected. This can leave you with someone who's functional but not happy, and therefore not performing at their best level.

6. Health-related issues

Health-related issues are naturally a private matter for most people, and can be one of the most difficult causes of underperformance to resolve. In the case of physical conditions, an employee may or may not notify the business depending on the condition, and how evident its impact is. With mental health issues, the stigma that many people still feel leads a majority to stay silent about their problems, often exacerbating the issue for both parties.

7. Personal circumstances

Our personal and work lives are increasingly linked, despite the demand for a better work-life balance. Sometimes it can be hard to avoid emails at home, and equally hard not to bring personal issues to the workplace. From arguments and breakups to finances and bereavements, our personal circumstances can have a dramatic impact on our performance at work.

8. Communication

A harmonious working environment is built on good communication, both between peers and between employees and their employers. For staff, this means creating forums and structures for discussion, and building working relationships. For employers, it means being transparent and supportive towards employees, and keeping them in the loop on decisions and changes.

9. Excessive workload

Sometimes underperformance can be a result of expectations placed on an employee. A promotion or a change in someone's workload can cause additional strain, with too many things to do or keep track of. This increase in work not only physically prevents them from finishing tasks, but can also worsen their mental health and impact their general productivity.

Addressing underperformance

The solutions to each problem may seem obvious, if not immediate. The trouble is usually in how you identify these issues - and how you prevent them from happening in the first place. Reducing levels of underperformance requires you to put a structure and a set of policies in place, helping employees and managers to diagnose issues and take action.

One of the common factors among many of the causes of underperformance is poor recruitment, whether this is hiring someone who lacks the right skillset or the right attitude. Psychometric testing can be a valuable tool to provide insights on what motivates people, letting you tailor your response to the needs of individuals. This can prove valuable as an internal process and at the recruitment stage, even if underperformance isn't a noticeable issue.

If you're having issues with a particular employee, drafting a performance improvement plan will help you to broach the subject with them, and establish a course of action. This will flag up issues or processes which may be contributing to their underperformance, and the steps you can take collectively to help them improve - as well as the outcomes you're looking for.

Sometimes even presenting an employee with a performance improvement plan doesn't rectify the situation. In these cases - or those where you feel the issues can’t be corrected - you may need to let an employee go. This should be an absolute last resort, and not contravene the guidelines for unfair dismissal, putting you at risk of an employment tribunal.

Ultimately, identifying why an employee may be underperforming can help prevent its knock-on effects in the workplace. Matching potential problems to strategic management solutions is the best possible means of ensuring every employee receives the evaluation and attention required to help ensure the future success of your organization.

Julie Nicholds

Julie Nicholds is the Operations Director at Loch Associates Group, specializing in employment law, HR Consultancy, and health and wellbeing.


Join the conversation...

20/05/2021 Sophia M.
Great and simple article, a reminder to manager on how to deal with performance issues.
28/05/2022 Emmanuel saffa
Thank you 👍