10 Questions to Ask an Underperforming Employee

Underperformance is the failure of an employee to meet his or her work obligations to the required standard. The effects can range from a decline in quality of output to a loss in business income.

Underperformance can also strain teams by leaving one or a few team members to carry the extra load. This will in turn strain those team members, leading to a cycle of underperformance in the organisation.

Management’s inability to deal with an underperforming employee can also lead others to underperform. Whereas terminating an underperforming employee is one of the options, some organisations like to consider it as a last resort after trying to remedy the situation.

If you have gone through a rigorous hiring process and are confident that you hired the right person for the job, there are several questions you can ask an underperforming employee in order to reveal challenges and formulate solutions.

Have we provided you with a clear way to measure your output?

When organisations do not provide employees with proper metrics or KPIs against which they will be measured, it will not be clear to employees when they fall short. The solution in this case can be as easy as quantifying the organisation’s goals for the employee and the business.

The goals set should be SMART. ‘Engage customers’ could be translated into ‘call 5 customers every week and have them respond to this questionnaire.’

Do you have the tools you need to do your work?

Tools of work can be software, machines or vehicles. In their absence, an employee might continue to underperform.

Are you familiar with the organisation’s mission, values and objectives?

Employees who are familiar with and have a personal and emotional attachment to the organisation’s mission are more engaged and likely to outperform their counterparts.

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Do you have the right support from your team mates and supervisor to do your job?

This can zero down on whether communication is working the right way. If an employee is unable to get clear and correct communication it can lead to persistent underperformance.

This question can also reveal team dynamics at play. How well employees relate with their managers greatly affects their output. Good managers facilitate open discussions that can solve problems and ensure performance.

The relationship with team mates can also reveal if the team is toxic, if there is bullying or if there are cliques within teams that might make an employee feel left out. On the other spectrum, the team might not be capable, forcing the under performer to do all the work. Information gathered here can lead to an examination that will benefit that employee and an audit that can benefit the entire organisation.

Do you feel heard?

A good follow-up to the previous question is if the employee feels heard. It is one thing for communication to flow in a top-down manner but there must also be systems for employees to be heard. Whether it is through anonymous surveys or one on one catch ups.

Once management receives their feedback they should acknowledge it otherwise it can create a situation where employees feel like it doesn’t matter if they share feedback or not.  Constantly feeling like one is ignored can greatly affect morale and lead to a drop in performance.

How challenging are your roles?

This question seeks to find out if the job roles are hard or if they are too easy. Either answer can result in underperformance.

Too hard a task will take more time to complete and will demoralise an employee. Too easy tasks can lead to employees being disengaged because they are bored.

If tasks are too hard, training can be employed, if too easy, a change in roles can be considered.

If the role is too easy, it can also show that growth opportunities are lacking for the employee. Mastering a level and not being given the opportunity to take on more responsibility or to do something else can be demoralising.

ask an underperforming employee

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What are your interests?

Ask an underperforming employee this question to reveal two things. First, what activities can be used to motivate them, employees will be encouraged to exceed their targets if they know there is a reward at the end of the day.

Second, if their current job aligns with their interests. The output of someone in accounting who is actually interested in people and management may plateau and decline after a while.

How are you coping with the changes at the company?

This question is good to ask an employee who used to perform well but whose performance has dropped in light of a change at work.

Changes in organisations, including new systems, mergers or new leaders might destabilise some employees. Asking this question will inform measures like giving an employee more training or simply allowing them time to adjust.

Do you feel comfortable here?

Ask an underperforming employee if they are fitting in with the culture or finding the policies equitable. In the increasingly diverse workplaces of today, it is not uncommon to find that some adjustment might help an employee perform better.

Comfort might also mean something physical. Such as the type of chair someone with a delicate back is using daily or how close to a window someone with an allergy is.

Are you OK?

Employees have lives outside of the workplace and sometimes what is going on there might spill over into work and affect performance. While managers are restricted from asking employees certain personal questions, in the absence of an HR manager or an established mental health initiative like EY’s, asking after an employees’ wellbeing will fall on a direct supervisor.

In Summary

Asking questions with kindness and curiosity shows that you care and are seeking to find solutions and not to blame an employee. Sometimes the best thing to ask an underperforming employee is this; ‘How can we help you?’ They might know just what they need to turn their performance around.

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.