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How to tell an employee they are not meeting expectations [examples & free template]

When one of your employees isn’t meeting expectations, it’s normal to feel dread and unease. You care about your team, and each member of it. The last thing you want is to see them fail. 

Plus, it impacts the rest of the team’s performance and in some ways, is a reflection of your own performance. You start to wonder what you can do to get them back on track—and if they can.

How do you bring up poor performance with them in the first place?

Don’t worry too much, with the right approach you can address the issue and put them on the path to exceptional work.

So let’s dig into the steps you can take to flag underperformance in a constructive and effective way.

Addressing underperformance: How to tell an employee they’re not meeting expectations

No one wants to be told they’re underperforming. It feels like a gut punch to the stomach. It may even make you fearful of losing your job.

Here’s the thing—your employee’s performance should never come as a shock. Good managers know that regular feedback is a key part of effective leadership.

But there will be moments where you need to address poor performance head on. 

Rather than give bits of feedback here and there, you need to hold a conversation dedicated to the issues you’re seeing and one where you focus on solutions.

The end goal is to motivate and support them so that they can eventually meet expectations, if not exceed them. 

And to do that, you need to approach the situation in three phases:

  • Phase 1: Prepare for the conversation
  • Phase 2: Address the performance issues
  • Phase 3: Move forward, together

Phase 1: Prepare for the conversation

Document clearly what expectations aren’t being met

Before you have a formal chat about your employee’s poor performance, you need to pinpoint their areas of improvement.

Relying on vague feelings or generalizations won't cut it. For example, if a new employee frequently misses deadlines, don't just note "poor time management." Instead, be specific: "Missed the project deadline on April 5th, delayed team progress on April 12th, and submitted incomplete work on April 20th."

It’s worth considering here if there have been any misalignments in performance expectations that might have caused these problems in the first place (but more on that in a moment!) or if you’re direct report will even be aware of these issues.


If there are multiple areas you want to address, make sure to organize the examples under those main points of concern.

This grounds your feedback in fact, making it more actionable and fair. If your company has performance standards documented for each role, then this will make your job easier. 

If an employee's output doesn't match the set standards, that's a clear indicator of where they're falling short.

Identify where role expectations might be unclear or misunderstood

Sometimes, the root of an underperforming employee's issues isn't a lack of effort but a lack of clarity. And this is an important context to have ahead of a performance conversation. 

Ask yourself: Have I provided a detailed breakdown of what's expected in their role? 

It's not uncommon for managers, or companies, to assume their vision of success is universally understood. 

But in reality, an underperforming employee might have a different interpretation of what they’re meant to do and achieve.

For example, if you've told your team member to "increase sales," do they know by how much? A better approach would be to list key metrics, like "Increase sales by 15% over the next quarter."

If you have set clear expectations, then you should prepare to reference those expectations in the conversation. 

Set up and prepare for a one on one meeting with the employee

It’s important to flag performance issues early and in a private setting. This isn't a chat for the open office or over Slack. No, you need a place where you can deliver your message with clarity and empathy. 

Thus, a one to one meeting is the perfect place.

If you're connecting online, ensure both parties have a quiet space and a stable connection. Visual cues, even through a screen, can offer insights into how your feedback is being received.

The preceding steps have helped you prepare for this uncomfortable conversation—and will keep it productive.

Share an agenda ahead of time so the employee knows performance will be discussed. However, keep it general; you want to provide a heads-up without causing undue anxiety. You can also prompt them to reflect on their performance beforehand so that they’re prepared.

With Waggle, you can create focused, automated meeting agendas in less than 5 minutes and share them with your team. It takes the sting out of preparing for difficult conversations at work and ensures you’re prepared for the task ahead.

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Get started with your free 15 day trial of Waggle and see for yourself. 

Phase 2: Address the performance issue

Find out how they think they’re performing

Before diving into your observations, it's essential to understand the employee's perspective. 

Start the conversation with a simple question: "How do you feel you've been performing recently?" This opens the door for a self-evaluation, allowing the employee to reflect on their achievements and areas they feel might need improvement.

If this isn’t the first time these performance issues have been raised, you can reframe the question around a specific issue or keep it general.

Encouraging self-evaluation serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it gives you insight into their self-awareness levels. Are they cognizant of the areas where they're falling short, or are they genuinely unaware? 

Secondly, it sets a collaborative tone for the conversation. Instead of coming across as confrontational, you're inviting them into a dialogue, emphasizing that this is a joint effort towards improvement.

Remember, understanding their viewpoint is the foundation upon which you can build a constructive conversation about performance.

Tell them what you’ve observed and give examples

Once you've understood their perspective, it's time to share yours. But remember, this isn't about pointing fingers or laying blame. It's about providing constructive feedback that paves the way for growth.

Start by highlighting the positive aspects of their performance. This sets a positive tone and shows that you recognize their efforts. 

Then, transition into the areas of concern. Be direct, but empathetic. Phrases like "I've noticed" or "It's come to my attention" can be helpful in framing your observations without sounding accusatory.

The key to effective feedback is specificity. Vague statements can leave employees feeling confused or defensive. Instead, provide specific examples that illustrate your concerns. For instance, instead of saying "Your reports often lack detail," you might say, "In the last three project summaries, I noticed missing data on project outcomes and stakeholder feedback."

The notes you took in Phase 1: Document clearly what expectations aren’t being met, will be useful here.

Remember to also refer back to where misalignment of performance expectations might have occurred and address those with your underperformer. 

Clarify and reiterate performance expectations

Even if you and your direct report were on the same page about their performance, you need to clarify what expectations are in place and what it will take to meet expectations moving forward.

Begin by asking if they have any questions about their role or the feedback provided. 

This gives them an opportunity to voice any uncertainties or concerns. Make the employee understand not just where they've fallen short, but also why those standards are in place.

Next, reiterate the performance expectations for their role. Be clear and specific, and write them down in a shared document, if they aren’t already. 

For instance, if timely project completion is a concern, specify what "timely" means in terms of deadlines.

By the end of this conversation, the goal is to have a mutual understanding. Both you and the employee should walk away with a clear picture of what's expected and how they can achieve those standards. 

 

Phase 3: Move forward, together 

Make a plan and set performance goals 

The whole point of telling your employee they aren’t meeting expectations is so that you can solve it together. Support and motivation are key and a ‘we’ approach will get you better outcomes. 


And sometimes, the challenge isn't solely the employee's to bear. The performance problem could stem from company-wide issues, unrealistic expectations, or external pressures they're facing. The cause will become clear in your conversation and it will dictate the plan you put in place to address the problem.

Discuss the employee's goals. What do they hope to achieve? How do they see their growth? This mutual understanding can be the foundation for improvement.

While a "performance improvement plan" is common, they can feel punitive. Instead, focus on setting clear goals that align with the company's needs and the employee's aspirations. Consider if additional training could help them meet performance expectations.

The aim? To ensure both of you are aligned and moving forward, together.

Below you can see the response from a manager on Reddit. They responded to someone asking about performance problems with an employee:

Follow through and follow up 

Support doesn't end when the meeting does. Regularly check in with your employee, not just to monitor their progress but to offer guidance and reassurance. This continuous engagement shows that you're invested in their career development and not just ticking off a managerial box.

For instance, if one of the action items from the meeting was for the employee to attend a workshop to enhance their skills, check in afterward. Ask about their takeaways, how they plan to implement what they've learned, and if they need any additional resources.

Similarly, if you committed to providing clearer guidelines or reallocating some of their workload, ensure you do so promptly

Both you and the employee have roles to play in this journey of improvement. Your consistent engagement and follow-up will not only drive better performance but also foster trust and commitment.

Take note of what occurred

After your conversation, take the time to jot down the key points discussed, the feedback provided, and the action items agreed upon. 

Here’s why it’s important:

It serves as a reference point.

It provides a clear record of the conversation, ensuring that both you and the employee have a mutual understanding of what was discussed and the next steps.

It holds everyone accountable.

Having a written record holds both parties accountable. It's a tangible reminder of the commitments made and the goals set.

It can inform future discussions. 

If performance issues persist or reoccur, having documentation allows you to reference previous conversations. This can be invaluable in understanding patterns, gauging improvement, or making more significant decisions about the employee's role.

It shows proof of performance problems if you need it.

In the unfortunate event that further actions, such as disciplinary measures or dismissal, are required, having a well-documented history ensures that decisions are fair, consistent, and transparent.

Waggle’s AI notetaker keeps track of conversations, takes meeting notes for you, and even provides you feedback on how you could have managed the conversation better. 

Common examples of employees not meeting expectations

Wondering what performance issues you may come up against?

Here are some common examples:

  • Collaboration issues: Some employees struggle to work cohesively with their peers, leading to team friction.
  • Missed deadlines: Consistently failing to meet timelines can disrupt projects and team dynamics.
  • Quality concerns: Delivering work that doesn't meet the company's standards can impact overall output.
  • Role incompetence: Occasionally, an employee might find it challenging to handle the responsibilities intrinsic to their position.
  • Punctuality and attendance: Regular tardiness or absenteeism can affect team morale and productivity.

Lead a team of high-performers with Waggle

Waggle makes effective people management feel effortless—letting you manage your work, your team, and your team’s work in one platform. 

When it comes to difficult conversations, you’re given the tools to converse effectively (built for you agenda’s, AI note taking, and action items assigned to you. You’re also coached and given feedback to manage better next time. 

Get started with Waggle (free for 15 days, then $30 per month). ←

Further reading

Here are some additional resources to help you manage your work, your team, and your team’s work effectively.

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