Employee Engagement Ideas: When Should You Give Up on Underperforming Employees?

By Heather Campbell

Deciding how to manage underperforming employees is a headache for many business leaders.

In particular, leaders tell me it can be difficult to know when to draw the line and give up.

I recently spoke to one line manager who described a series of six conversations with a consistently underperforming employee – he wanted my advice as to whether or not he should escalate this to his senior manager. I admire his patience but not his management of this individual!

Based on my experience in helping many leaders address this, you should not need to have more than three conversations with an employee about the same behaviours before you can reasonably assume, “they’re not going to change.”

I know what you’re thinking: How can an employee’s potential to change be defined in just three conversations?

Read on to find out.

The first conversation

The first conversation establishes the expectations of both the employee and the manager moving forward.

This needs to be an exploratory, open conversation where your intention as the manager is to:

  • Explain that the performance is not satisfactory
  • Explore why the employee isn’t performing well
  • Determine the actions they need to take to get things on track
  • Establish a system of support to help them succeed

If the employee genuinely intends to improve their performance – and has the potential to do so – the first conversation should be enough to come to a solution and shared understanding of how to move forward. But if not…

The second conversation

The second conversation is required if there has been no reasonable improvement in the employee’s performance.

This conversation needs to ask the employee why they have not put into place the agreed actions, or why the proposed actions are not working.

Then the conversation can be turned towards refining what the employee is going to do to make sure the agreed upon actions work in future.

Like the first conversation, this conversation is exploratory in the sense that the manager needs to understand why the individual hasn’t put into place the remedial actions that were discussed in the first conversation – or why they haven’t been effective.

It’s a much more narrow conversation than the first one. You aren’t discussing again why they aren’t performing, you’re now asking: “Why aren’t you doing the things we agreed you would do?”

Or it could be, “Why are the things we talked about you working on, not helping you to perform better?”

The problem I find is that managers tend to simply repeat the first conversation again, but that won’t help things change. The second conversation needs the narrower focus outlined.

The third conversation

If you need a third conversation about ongoing underperformance, chances are that the person either doesn’t really intend to change or doesn’t have the ability to make the changes required.

This conversation can be the most difficult, especially if you know that the person is well-intentioned and has been seriously trying to change.

This conversation is directive rather than exploratory. You will be explaining what will happen if things don’t change, and change quickly. This is likely to include more formal action such as implementing disciplinary processes.

But remember, at this stage, your intention is still to help the individual achieve satisfactory performance again.

And given the next steps that may be required, make sure that you are getting guidance from HR professionals with your organisation and, if you are in a more junior leadership role, keep your senior manager informed too.


Managing underperforming employees isn’t a favourite part of any managers role – however, it is inevitable that most will have to do so.

To help you with this, I’ve shared the three conversations that managers need to have if performance isn’t getting better. These are increasingly focussed in nature and and are designed to avoid the biggest pitfall managers fall into – having the same initial conversation over and over again – and then wondering why things don’t improve.

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