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How to Manage Underperforming Employees 

How to Manage Underperforming Employees bad employee

July 30, 2020

Inside: Underperforming employees can change with support and guidance from management. 

When faced with an underperforming employee, managers often feel like they are stuck with two bad choices: accept the employee as-is, or fire them.

Maybe it’s a new hire that isn’t as competent as you’d hoped or a longtime staff member who’s suddenly showing up late and making careless mistakes. Either way, you’re missing out on potential productivity by assuming they can’t change.

With honest feedback and proper guidance, an underperforming employee can turn into one of your best assets.

Intervene Early With Your Underperforming Employee

Approaching staff members who are coming up short is awkward and nerve-wracking for managers. Because talking about performance issues is so uncomfortable, you may be tempted to let minor bad behaviors slide to avoid a potential confrontation.

However, if you don’t intervene when the underperformance first starts, the employee will assume their performance is just fine. Problem behaviors won’t go away on their own, and they may even get worse over time.

When you do approach your underperforming employee about their performance issues, keep these things in mind.

Be concrete about problems (and solutions)

When you meet with your underperforming staff member to discuss their issues, come armed with concrete feedback about where they are falling short and what your expectations are for a successful employee.

The more detailed you can get, the more helpful it is for the employee. Instead of telling them, “You are struggling to provide good customer service,” point to specific behaviors and instances where they’ve failed to meet expectations. For example, “Last week, a patient asked for your help, and instead of assisting them, you rudely told them that you were too busy.”

Then, walk them through what they should have done in that situation, and clear up any confusion. For example, “I know you had been instructed to clean up the shelves, but you should step away from those tasks when a patient needs assistance.”

Keep emotions out of it

When an employee is falling short on the job, you may harbor some negative feelings about the situation, whether they are frustration, disappointment, or even anger. But when you address shortcomings, try to stay even-keeled and objective.

If you aren’t able to keep calm, the employee will feel attacked, and they won’t hear the message you are trying to get across. By delivering criticism in a steady manner, you prevent a difficult conversation from devolving into an emotional confrontation.

However, it’s important to recognize that the employee receiving criticism may not be able to stay stoic. Let them have their reaction, and then check in with them a little later to ensure that they understand.

Identify the root cause

Before you create an action plan, ask the employee why they think they might be struggling in their position. The fact that a staff member isn’t meeting expectations doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad fit for the position.

Poor performance could be a symptom of insufficient training, or miscommunicated expectations. If you haven’t been explicit about which parts of the position are the most important, the staff member may be devoting their energy to less important tasks.

You may also discover that the staff member has something going on in their personal life that’s affecting their work performance. How you decide to tackle performance issues may change if you know your employee is going through a rough break-up or experiencing a health scare.

Extend Support to Your Underperforming Employee

Once you’ve addressed that a problem exists, an underperforming employee shouldn’t be expected to go on the journey of self-improvement all by themselves.

You may need to give the employee some additional training to get them up to speed. Let them know that you are available to give guidance so they don’t have to go it alone.

Create a PIP

If a struggling employee fails to improve after one or many frank conversations, it is time to place them on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). A PIP is a tool for managers that puts the employee’s struggles and shortcomings in writing and lays out concrete steps for what they need to do to improve.

Because they are so thorough and detailed, a PIP should never be the first solution to address an underperforming employee. The serious nature of a PIP often serves as a wake-up call for apathetic employees and having a structured goal can help them focus on improvement.

Set SMART goals

Define the areas an employee needs to improve, and then tackle them by creating SMART goals. A SMART goal is:


By getting detailed with SMART goals, an employee will know what success looks like and what they need to do in order to get better at their jobs.

Work on these with your employee, then once you’ve agreed on appropriate goals, put them in writing. You both keep a copy, so your employee can use the goals as a GPS for improvement and you can keep them accountable.

Establish a time frame

A PIP should not be open-ended. Instead, it should have a timeline attached to it, and at the end of that timeline, the employee will have either shown the necessary improvement or not.

Typically, PIPs come in 30-, 60-, or 90-day time frames. Use the goals you set to determine an appropriate time frame. The employee should have enough time to achieve those goals and show consistent improvement, so longer PIPs can help employees make the greatest strides.

If you’re dealing with a behavior issue that could harm the pharmacy, like ignoring safety precautions that might lead to medication errors, a shorter timeline will enforce new behaviors quickly.

Check up on progress

Meet with the employee regularly throughout the PIP to monitor how the employee is progressing.

These meetings are crucial because you may discover that the employee is making strides, but the goals you set together are unrealistic. Or perhaps they are still struggling, but they’ve realized they don’t have the right training or tools to improve.

You may find that despite achievable goals and support from management, the employee is still floundering.

With regular meetings, when the PIP ends, neither you nor the employee should be surprised by the results.

Know when to let them go

If you’ve invested time and resources into helping the employee improve, but they still fall short, it’s time to terminate.

Poor employee performance doesn’t just affect that one employee — it can infect your entire team. Other staff members will grow resentful if they have to pick up the slack, and if you don’t get rid of the problem employee, you will end up losing your star players instead.

Once you’ve made the decision to terminate, it’s important to get it over quickly so morale can begin to recover.


An Independently Owned Organization Serving Independent Pharmacies 

PBA Health is dedicated to helping independent pharmacies reach their full potential on the buy side of their business. The company is a member-owned organization that serves independent pharmacies with group purchasing services, expert contract negotiations, proprietary purchasing tools, distribution services, and more.

An HDA member, PBA Health operates its own NABP-accredited (formerly VAWD) warehouse with more than 6,000 SKUs, including brands, generics, narcotics CII-CV, cold-storage products, and over-the-counter (OTC) products.

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