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What do you do when an employee consistently fails to meet expectations?

You have an employee who consistently fails to meet deadlines, submits subpar work, and was recently reported by a client as non-responsive. What should you do?

  1. Ignore the issue

  2. Fire them immediately

  3. Switch them to a different role

  4. Communicate concerns, retrain, and hold them accountable to your standards

If you answered D, you are correct! If you answered A, B, or C, this blog post is for you!

Effectively managing your workforce is crucial to maintaining a productive and harmonious workplace as a small business owner. Employees are your greatest assets, and understanding how to address underperformance, policy violations, or cultural misalignments can significantly impact your business's success. This guide will walk you through a step-by-step approach to managing these challenging situations with empathy and emotional intelligence, ensuring that you maximize the potential of every team member.

Before diving into the specific steps, it's essential to understand that improving an employee's performance or behavior is often more cost-effective than hiring and training new staff. This approach saves on recruitment costs and preserves team dynamics and company culture. Leading with emotional intelligence and empathy can help you address issues effectively, promoting a supportive and inclusive work environment.

Why Focus on Retention and Improvement?

  • Cost-Effectiveness: Recruitment and training are expensive and time-consuming processes. According to recent data from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employee turnover costs companies an average of 6-9 months of an employee's salary. Read our post on retention:

  • Preservation of Team Dynamics: Adding and deleting team members and shifting responsibilities can disrupt existing team workflows and relationships, impacting goals, projects, and profitability.

  • Cultural Continuity: Long-term employees are custodians of your company culture and historical knowledge.

The Root Cause

Before taking any action, it’s crucial to identify and understand the problem accurately. Is it a performance issue, a policy violation, a lack of training, or a cultural misalignment? First and foremost, you must identify the root cause to prevent the problem from recurring.

Issues and violations are tricky when small businesses do not detail their expectations and policies. Why is this important? Let me share a brief scenario -

Amy, a new employee and also a person who does not use the telephone but rather texts as a primary form of communication, fails to return a customer's phone call. The company has an agreement with the customer that all calls will be returned within 24 hours. The Customer called Amy and asked for an immediate response about the project's status. Amy didn’t call; she texted. The Customer didn’t check their texts because they were in a secure facility and were expecting a phone call. The Customer was unhappy and has now contacted the Owner (You) about not meeting the agreed-upon expectations.

What is the root cause of the issue?

Remember that there can be many reasons for employees failing to meet expectations. Some are:

  • Lack of training

  • Miscommunication

  • Multiple ways to get the job done

  • Unclear expectations

  • Generational beliefs on the way to behave, and then there’s…

  • Just a person being lazy or trying to get away with something (but that is usually not the case)

5FT View’s Golden Rule:

Employees should be trained and informed, have the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to perform the assignments and

be held accountable for performing their jobs and meeting expectations.

Employee handbooks, policies, procedures (documented), and communication about expectations are crucial so everyone can clearly understand expectations. Provided you have ensured adequate training and clear communication about expectations and the person has the skills, knowledge, and abilities to get the job done if a failure occurs, then you need a plan. Follow the suggestions below for the recommended path for handling problematic situations with employees.

Evaluate and Plan

Once you've identified the issue, evaluate the severity and impact on your business and team. This will help you decide the appropriate level of intervention.

Hold an informal meeting if it is a minor issue that can be resolved through informal discussions, retraining, or mentoring. Ensure you meet with the employee in a private space. Share your concerns and ask for their input on the situation. Agree on the expectations through negotiation or retraining. Check back in and reinforce positive actions that align with expectations. Examples of minor issues (if a first occurrence) are:

  • Tardiness

  • Non-impactful missed deadline

  • Failure to respond timely

  • Missed process steps

Consider whether a formal performance improvement plan (PIP), corrective action plan (CAP), or immediate disciplinary action is needed if it is a significant issue. Often, repeated minor issues become substantial issues that impact team morale and could impact customer satisfaction. The purpose of a PIP is to document action steps and measurable results to assist an employee in getting back on track. The PIP often has a deadline to meet expectations and typically is presented after multiple informal interactions of the same or other minor issues that still need to be resolved. Examples of significant issues that would warrant a PIP are:

  • Repeated missed deadlines

  • Customer complaints

  • Consistent subpar work performance

Examples of significant issues that would warrant a CAP or immediate disciplinary action like suspension or termination are:

  • Direct policy violation

  • Unethical behavior

  • Unsafe behavior

  • Violations of law

Conduct Regular One-on-One Meetings

One-on-ones are a terrific management tool to have consistent communication with employees. They are a great way to communicate regularly with your employees and discuss the status of projects, what’s working, gain buy-in, etc. When an issue or performance concern arises, initiating a direct conversation is often the most effective way to address workplace challenges. Conduct this meeting with a high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence.

TIP: I always recommend regularly scheduled meetings; they can be canceled. The benefits include reassuring the employees that you always have time for them. More importantly, if a problematic situation needs to be discussed, the meeting hitting the schedule is not a huge surprise or anxiety-ridden occurrence.

  • Prepare for Discussion: Plan your approach to address the issue, focusing on facts and desired outcomes.

  • Be Clear and Specific: Describe the observed behavior and its impact on the team and company.

  • Listen Actively: Allow the employee to share their perspective.

  • Express Empathy: Show understanding and concern for the employee’s situation.

  • Mutual Problem Solving: Engage the employee in finding solutions.

  • Define Clear, Achievable Goals: Ensure these are measurable and time-bound.

  • Provide Necessary Support: Offer training, mentoring, or more frequent feedback.

  • Set Clear Objectives: Determine a successful outcome for the business and the employee.

  • Communicate Expectations: Clearly define what changes are needed and why.

Follow-up and Monitor Progress

After informal communication, a PIP, or a CAP has been delivered, it is imperative to maintain regular follow-ups to ensure progress and keep the employee motivated. Allow the employee to gather support. Adjust the support level as needed based on the employee’s response to the plan. The goal is to turn the employee around. Regretfully, employees often see a PIP or other disciplinary communication as an early warning sign that termination is inevitable. The manager’s job is to support, reassure, and motivate employees to continue contributing to the team and the organizational objectives.

Make a Decision

Decide on the next steps based on the progress and the employee’s willingness to improve. Actions could range from graduating them from the improvement plan to considering termination if sufficient progress is not made. Questions to ask before making a decision are:

  • Have you given the employee every opportunity to be successful?

  • Is there another organizational role for the individual’s skills and abilities?

  • Could the PIP be extended without negatively impacting the customers, team, or organization?

  • Is the employee motivated to improve?

  • Has the employee shown sustained improvement?


Handling underperforming employees or those who violate company policies is a delicate task that requires thoughtfulness and empathy. As a small business owner, leveraging emotional intelligence to turn around an employee’s trajectory enhances your work environment and reinforces your role as a supportive and fair leader. Remember, the goal is to foster a culture where all employees feel valued and motivated to contribute their best.

The worst part of the job is handling difficult situations, subpar performance, and other employee issues. But it has to be managed. Ignoring poor performance melts the morale of top performers faster than ice cream outside on an 80-degree day. Additionally, there are a plethora of laws and regulations surrounding terminations that must be followed to stay out of court.

5FT View can help. We assist small businesses in creating transparent and sustainable handbooks, policies, and processes that align with your growing team and culture. Additionally, we provide valuable insight on lawful practices, ensuring discipline, PIPs, CAPs, and terminations are handled as they should be according to state and federal law.

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