A Guide to What Is Underperformance in the Workplace

The cost of underperformance can be felt across the organisation; from reduced productivity, loss of revenue and to a spreading of low morale in the workplace. But what is underperformance anyway?

In a well-managed workplace, all employees are given targets to attain. Clearly defined expectations are put in place and a failure to reach them is what is termed as underperformance.

Underperformance isn’t bad conduct or when an employee breaks the rules. An employee who sticks to the code of conduct can still underperform and vice versa.

The results of underperformance are clear but it can be hard to identify underperformance when it is happening in the organisation.

How to identify underperformance

While the effects of underperformance are easy to see overtime, it might take some investigation, especially in the absence of clear performance targets, to identify it. Remember it is entirely plausible that the employee who comes to work first and leaves last is actually underperforming.

Are you still wondering, “What is underperformance in the first place?” You can zero down on it by:

Tracking customer feedback

If customers are constantly complaining about one particular employee, this is a giveaway that they are not doing everything right. An employee’s underperformance can’t be ignored when it produces consistent negative customer feedback as this soon affects the bottom line.

Repeatedly missed deadlines

It is possible for employees to miss a deadline but if it becomes frequent, it is a sign of underperformance. The danger with missing deadlines is that it can affect other employees and the final product as well if work relies on everyone doing a piece of work.

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Feedback from workmates

Some workmates might be reluctant to complain about a colleague and instead decide to do all their work themselves. This can delay management finding out that there is actually an under-performer on the team.

However, consistently doing more than they can handle can lead to burnout and set in motion a cycle of underperformance among employees. Managers can rely on anonymous surveys to get information about how employees feel about their workloads.


Another clear example of what is underperformance is employees being chronically absent or late. They will not have enough time to do their appointed tasks and will leave an unfair burden on their teammates. There are several ways to manage absenteeism.

Low motivation

Underperformance might be the reason a former team player who used to contribute solutions and participate is all of a sudden fine just going with the flow.

Having recognised that there is underperformance in an organisation, managers need to identify its causes in order to find solutions to it.

What causes underperformance?

After understanding what is underperformance and what’s not, the next natural is to wonder what causes it. There needs to be a frank discussion with the employee affected. Reasons can be external to the environment like personal health or family issues. They can also stem from within the organisation.

The employee doesn’t know what is expected of them

One of the things that leads to underperformance is a lack of clarity on what needs to be done. Employees might end up making their own goals and steps to get there. It is very possible for an employee not to even be aware that they are performing below the required standard.

There is a skills gap

Sometimes employees don’t have the knowledge required to do their jobs the right way. Their skills might also be obsolete which leads to delays and errors in production. It is also possible that an employee has skills that do not match the role they are performing, in other words, they are better suited to another role.

There is a lack of support from management

A supervisor or direct manager plays a role in ensuring that employees reach their full potential. They are responsible for troubleshooting and offering oversight during different projects. Supervisors are also responsible for escalating complaints to top management. Failure to do this can affect employee performance. Top management’s inability to respond effectively can also result in underperformance.

A hostile work environment

The policies and culture of an organisation might be negative enough to lead to underperformance. There might also be conflicts, unhealthy competition or even bullying amongst colleagues. It is hard for an employee to thrive in such an environment.

What is underperformance in employees

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What to do to solve underperformance in the workplace

After figuring out what is underperformance and what’s causing it, you can implement several targeted solutions.

Support an employee facing personal challenges

If the cause is something happening in the employee’s life such as having a sick relative, or them dealing with an illness, mental or physical, offer them time off or a flexible schedule so that they can dedicate time to taking care of it.

To proactively mitigate this issue, put in place workplace policies that give employees room to report or request for time off when such situations arise. This will prevent management from only offering assistance when underperformance has already set in.

Exercise flexibility when offering compassionate leave by taking into consideration the evolving nature of families. A close friend might not be considered close family officially but might be that to an employee.

Offer training opportunities

Training staff is a smart way to address underperformance. However, training should be preceded by a needs assessment to ensure that the right training is done. This can involve asking employees what they feel their gaps are, asking direct supervisors what areas they feel their people are struggling with and aligning the training with the broader organisational goals.

Training should be done periodically to ensure staff skills can address changing needs of your customers and trends in your industry.

Encourage and improve communication

Aim to have proper communication channels and a culture where feedback and communication are encouraged. Employees will be more willing to share when they have challenges in such an environment. Mangers too, through regular check-ins will be able to realise where there is a problem and work to solve it before underperformance sets in.

In summary

A solution that some might run to is to let go staff who underperform. This might not work for several reasons, one of which is that the cost of hiring new employees might be a lot higher than that of equipping the ones you already have for success.

There might also be organisational challenges that need to be addressed to solve the underlying reasons for underperformance in an organisation. The good news is that after understanding the answers to the question, “What is underperformance?” the solutions are easy to find.

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.