When Do I Tell Someone They’re Under-performing?


Compiled and edited by Julie Tereshchuk

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September 2018


Dear Mentors,

How long do I wait to tell someone they are under-performing? My recent promotion means I have some new direct reports. I’m struggling with one young team member. She is very enthusiastic but needs a LOT of supervision to keep her on task. Considering that she’s only been with the company a couple of months, is going to school (and seems constantly to have major assignments there) and has been planning a big trip, how much slack do I cut her? When do I speak up and tell her I’m unhappy? Her performance definitely lags behind others in our team. I don’t want to be too hardline as I can remember juggling work and school. I’m hoping she’ll be more focused after her upcoming vacation. What do you think?


Getting Frustrated



Dear Getting Frustrated,

Whoa – what a mess!! People who think that, because there is something major going on in their personal life, this reduces their work requirements at work, always confuse me. No! It may increase the need for empathy about the struggle and obvious challenges – and supporting the person in their personal life is always the right thing. However, the job is the job, and as a manager, your role is to ensure the work is done excellently.


So absolutely don’t wait another minute! The conversation doesn’t have to be a heavy, “You’re not meeting expectations” conversation, although it might be, depending on the circumstances.  But start with today. What are the deliverables today, this week? How can we get them done well? How can I support you? Where are your challenges with the work/project/deadlines? How can we overcome them?


Stay with this daily if necessary until improvement comes. Have the larger “this isn’t working” conversation only if the smaller, daily conversations aren’t working. Nip this in the bud. Clarify expectations. Set the standards and then expect they are met. Have empathy and all that – listen to challenges – all while pointing toward excellent outcomes.



Jan Gunter



Dear Getting Frustrated,

Please explain your expectations to your inexperienced team member immediately. The longer you wait to clarify the results you expect, the harder it will be to redirect. Or worse, you run the risk of allowing (or creating) problems that will be bad for the whole team.


Try to focus on results and standards, not on her age, personality, work style or outside commitments.


My experience is that most employees want to do a good job and will strive to meet your expectations. Your job as a new manager to this team member is to clarify expectations so that you both know what target the team is aiming at and how success will be measured.


Sandra Kleinsasser


Dear Getting Frustrated,

You should say something right away! Don’t wait until it gets worse. If you have a hard time keeping her on task now, you should let her know ASAP.



Margaret Barry

Dear Getting Frustrated,

NOW is the time to tell someone on your team they are underperforming. Feedback on an employee’s performance should be done regularly, not something you wait to do during an annual evaluation. Evaluations should not be a surprise but a continuation of an ongoing conversation about how the person is doing. Otherwise, how is the employee to know you’re not satisfied with her work? After two months on the job, she is still learning the ropes but likely is hungry for feedback. It’s your job to provide it, and it doesn’t need to be all negative.


Tap into her enthusiasm. That’s a good trait and can be a sign that she will rise to the challenge and learn how to do a better job of juggling her work with the outside demands on her time. She may decide she has to let something go. Let her know you appreciate her energy and start setting goals together, with deadlines, for her to make certain targets. Because she needs a lot of supervision, be specific and provide quick and honest feedback: You did this part of the assignment well; you didn’t do this other part so well. Here’s how you could have done it better. Be sure to document her progress—or lack thereof. If she doesn’t work out, you’ll want to show that you tried to help her succeed. You’ll also want to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say you did your best.



Mary Ann Roser


Dear Getting Frustrated,

The empathy that you show for your new direct report’s situation is really wonderful — I encourage you to keep that empathy in mind and part of the words you choose when you do end up speaking to her about her performance. For example, rather than telling her you are “unhappy” with her performance, you could let her know that you recognize she is still new and getting her feet under her and you are aware of her other responsibilities and projects outside of work that take up her time and attention; however, you’d like to do some level-setting with her regarding your expectations for everyone on the team, and there are a few areas in which you want to make sure you are both on the same page and she has the support she needs to execute.


In terms of timing: I think the sooner, the better in terms of bringing to her attention the gap between your expectations and her performance. If you have a regular recurring one-on-one meeting, that would be the time to raise it. (And if you don’t have such a meeting, I would start scheduling it now!) I would frame your comments such that once she returns from her trip, you will be holding her to a higher standard — and exactly what that looks like (and how it’s different from her current performance). Be sure to ask her questions and try to draw out any additional information about her situation that you may be missing. The more you can understand where she’s coming from and what she’s facing, the easier it will be to support her to live up to (and hopefully exceed) expectations.


Finally, be sure you are evaluating her based on her work quality and ability to meet deadlines, rather than monitoring how she spends her time from moment to moment (aka micromanaging). Whether or not she is “on task” at any given moment should not matter so much as whether she is accomplishing her work well and on time.



Gina Helfrich

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