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How to Tell an Employee They’re Not Meeting Expectations (+Free Template)

Letting an employee know they’re not meeting expectations isn't easy. These 10 tips can make the conversation a little less awkward.

By Mara Calvello  •   February 15, 2022  •   7 min read

Awkward conversations are awkward for a reason.

Whether they’re uncomfortable first dates or small talk on an airplane, awkward conversations are often avoided as best possible.

One uncomfortable conversation that is impossible to avoid is meeting with an employee to let them know their performance isn’t meeting expectations. No matter how awkward, this conversation should be had as soon as possible, not only to get it off your to-do list, but also to get the employee on the right track quickly.

If you’re currently in a situation where an employee isn’t meeting expectations and are unsure how to go about the conversation, Fellow is here to help.

How to tell an employee they’re underperforming 

No matter how long you’ve been a manager, it’s always an uncomfortable conversation telling an employee they’re underperforming or failing to meet expectations. Discussing an employee’s shortcomings and finding a solution may be something you dread doing, but a smart leader will have this conversation sooner rather than later.

If this is a situation you’ve found yourself in, here are 10 tips for handling an employee who isn’t performing how they should be.

1 Find where expectations don’t align

When a team member is having performance issues, as the manager, you should first find where expectations between you and the employee don’t align.

Priorities between a manager and their employee must always be aligned so no one is wasting their time or energy on work that isn’t as important as other tasks. Agreeing on priorities, due dates, and goals ahead of time can create this alignment before important task deadlines are missed. 

If you aren’t sure how to find this misalignment, consider asking yourself:

  • Does this employee understand the level of performance that is expected of them?
  • Does this employee understand the disciplinary measures that could occur if performance standards aren’t met?
  • Have I been clear about what is expected of this employee?
  • Have there been times where the employee expresses confusion surrounding their daily responsibilities? 

2 Schedule a one-on-one

Next, schedule a one-on-one meeting with the employee. This conversation should not be done over email or instant messaging software, like Slack or Microsoft Teams, but should instead be done face-to-face (in person or virtually). Having a face-to-face conversation is necessary because, since this can be a difficult conversation to have, things like tone, body language, facial expressions have an important effect on the conversation.

A manager wants to come off as understanding and as open to finding a solution as possible. This balance can be difficult to convey using only the written word. As soon as you notice an employee is underperforming or isn’t meeting expectations, act fast and find time on the calendar that works for both of you. Remember to also have specific examples of times an employee failed to meet expectations before meeting.

Come prepared

Important conversations need preparation in order to convey the right message without forgetting to mention anything. Try using a tool like Fellow for your meetings to document talking points and any decisions made.

3 Ask how they think they are performing first

Kick the one-on-one meeting off by asking the employee how they think they’re doing on their goals. In addition to having them do a brief self-evaluation, ask the employee to  list some key metrics and examples for how they measure their own levels of performance.

Hopefully, the employee will be on the same page as you and know they’ve missed the mark on more than one occasion. However, there may be times when you’re only in partial agreement, which is when you’ll need to point out additional areas or instances in which their performance fell short.

Unfortunately, there may be times when an employee thinks nothing is wrong and they’re doing fine. Even so, this is good information to have, since it can showcase where details and expectations have fallen through the cracks or have failed to be properly communicated. 

4 Give specific examples

Regardless of whether you and the employee are on the same page, be prepared to give examples of specific times when an employee didn’t do a good job, failed to meet a deadline, or made mistakes. Let them know where expectations were missed and what their areas of improvement should be.

Only showing up to this conversation with generic feedback is likely to confuse and frustrate an underperforming employee, especially if they’re already feeling overwhelmed and insecure about their performance. Steer clear of phrases like, “We need to make sure next quarter is better than the last one,” because they lack clear steps for the employee to take.

5 Connect their goals to the expectations

Hopefully, your employees all have professional goals for themselves. Maybe they’d like a promotion in the upcoming fiscal year, or qualify for a bonus or increase in salary. When you know their goals, you can connect their lack of performance to their professional goal and and better see how/where the employee is falling short. 

During your conversation, let them know that you expect a certain level of performance moving forward if they want to reach their goals. Additionally, be clear about the consequence of not meeting the desired level of performance. 

For example, if your employee shares they’d like to be the team lead on upcoming projects within the calendar year, explain to them that if they’re missing deadlines, underperforming, or failing to  deliver on the individual tasks on their plate, they won’t be trusted with the additional work that comes with leading a team. Providing this real scenario could be the wake-up call they need to start improving. 

6 Share the why

Sometimes it can be helpful to show an employee where they fit in the company mission. Giving them this insight shows them why their performance is so important and how it can help the company succeed. Make sure this individual knows how they fit in with their team and how their underperforming not only affects team morale, but also the business as a whole.

When the employee clearly understands the company goals and how their work fits into the bigger picture, they will hopefully be more engaged in their work.

7 Be clear about expectations

Now that most of the uncomfortable conversation is behind you, it’s time to communicate exactly what’s expected of the employee  moving forward. At the end of the conversation, there should be no uncertainties about what “meeting expectations” looks like. Be as specific as possible here by using phrases like, “Next time you do X, I expect Y.”

8 Make a plan together

Next, you’ll want to create a plan of action with the employee and find ways to coach them along their path of improvement. Whether it’s putting an employee on a performance improvement plan, requesting daily updates on specific tasks, or giving them a specific goal and a clear deadline, you’ll want to find what will motivate them best. Ask this individual how you can best support them on their path forward, and find out how they’d like to proceed. Maybe they’d like to establish SMART goals together, or perhaps they’d prefer sending updates every time they reach a specific milestone. Creating this plan together gives them the best chance of success.

9 Schedule follow-ups

The next step in the performance management process with this employee is to schedule follow-ups to ensure they’re on the right track. Maybe you’ll alot 10 minutes of your one-on-one meetings from now until the end of the quarter to checking in on performance. Or, if that isn’t frequent enough, consider follow-ups at the end of each week. As their manager, you’ll get to decide the cadence for these meetings based on what you believe is best and necessary.

10 Document the conversation

Finally, make sure you thoroughly document the details of the conversation. Because it’s such an emotional conversation to have, creating a reference document that clearly outlines everything that was discussed, as well as the plan for moving forward can be helpful for the employee to have as a reference after the meeting.

Consider a meeting tool like Fellow, which you can use to easily record action items and meeting notes so all parties know what was discussed and agreed upon. Having this conversation record can also be helpful if the employee continues to underperform, and termination is the next step.

Free meeting template

Feeling prepared for the conversation? Take it one step further with our free meeting template that makes setting expectations with an employee easy and straightforward.

It’s time to rip off the bandaid

Your team is only as strong as its weakest link, so even though this type of conversation can be awkward and uncomfortable, it’s extremely necessary if you want the team to succeed. The next time you find yourself in this situation, apply these 10 tips to help the conversion go as smoothly as possible. 

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