How to tell an employee they need to improve (8-step system)

Management & Annual Reviews

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Feedback is a gift. Providing your employees with feedback on their performance can help them celebrate their successes and support their professional growth. It’s easy to tell an employee they’re doing well, but it can become a difficult conversation when you need to provide negative feedback. 

One way of providing feedback to employees is through performance reviews. These are an essential part of supporting your employees so they can achieve personal growth, provide better customer service, and better support your organization’s goals and objectives. But the key to supporting this growth and improvement is knowing how to tell an employee they need to improve their performance. It’s important that you provide this feedback honestly and ethically during performance reviews.   

Keep reading to learn our 8-step process for evaluating poor employee performance in performance reviews, delivering constructive feedback, and supporting an underperforming employee to improve performance. 

How do you know an employee isn’t performing well?

An underperforming employee doesn’t meet the expectations of their job description or the predetermined and communicated goals and objectives for their role. You can determine this by collecting customer feedback, asking for co-worker feedback, and reviewing analytics related to their job performance (such as call center transcripts, time to resolution, and the number of tickets resolved).

Before you can ethically provide feedback to these employees, you must ensure that you’ve set clear expectations for their performance. It’s unethical to say, “John, you’re not meeting performance goals,” if John didn’t know what those performance expectations were in the first place. 

However, if you’ve clearly communicated rules that employees must achieve an 85% customer satisfaction rating on customer support calls, you can measure their work against this standard to identify poor employee performance.  

8-Steps: How do you help an employee who is struggling?

When you’ve identified an underperforming employee or one struggling to meet their job expectations, it’s time for their manager to discuss their performance with them. To provide the best support you can, follow these 8 steps for helping struggling and underperforming employees: 

1. Preparing for the discussion

The first step is to prepare for the feedback session or performance review. If you’ve identified areas of poor employee performance, gather evidence to support your claims. This could come from chat transcripts, customer feedback, or other metrics you can attribute to a specific employee. 

Before making any claims about the employee, do your due diligence to provide supporting evidence and look for the root cause of the struggle if possible. 

For example: If you feel the employee isn’t being polite enough on help desk phone calls, bring sample transcripts to show examples of where they’re being rude or where opportunities exist to be more polite. 

👉Another way to prepare for a performance review is to fill in a 9-box talent review. Get our free fillable PDF template to organize due diligence evidence and feedback.

 2. Scheduling a one-on-one Meeting

Discussing poor performance should be done with the employee privately in a one-on-one meeting, not in a group or team. This can be done as part of regular performance reviews or during other scheduled one-on-one meetings with the employee.  

Create a space where the employee feels as comfortable and feels safe to discuss performance with you. 

3. Use a constructive tone

Provide feedback in a constructive tone to avoid coming across as accusatory and overly mean. Here are a few tips for managing your tone during an employee performance discussion: 

  • Focus on facts: Bring evidence and proof of positive and negative feedback. This helps you focus on the facts and avoid being accused of bias towards the employee.
  • Manage your emotions: Speak positively, but remember you’re their boss. Avoid being overly friendly and casual or excessively aggressive and mean. Staying positive can help you respectfully support the employee’s growth so they can improve their work performance.
  • Keep it as positive as possible: A good technique is to sandwich negative feedback between positive feedback. For example, start by sharing what the employee is doing well, discuss the negative feedback, and end with more positive notes. 
  • Comment on performance, not personal traits: The best professional feedback you can give is based on facts and performance, not personal traits. For example, don’t start by saying, “Customers regularly say you seem to have a blase attitude.” Instead, reframe it based on performance: “Your customer satisfaction scores have dropped this quarter. Let’s look at why this is happening.”

4. Explain and provide examples

After providing the feedback, support your claims by reiterating the expectations and giving specific examples of how they were met or not met. This is an excellent chance to clarify any misunderstandings regarding expectations if necessary. 

A helpful way to get these examples is to use a customer experience management platform like Idiomatic. Idiomatic takes your customer feedback, including that related to specific employee performance, categorizes, and analyzes it at scale. This can help you segment employee performance by customer issue and pick out examples of employees not meeting customer service expectations (in your customer’s eyes). 

👉Learn more about how to use Idiomatic data in performance reviews for customer service teams

You can also ask other employees for peer feedback, either officially or anonymously. Their feedback regarding how the employee fits into the company culture and community can be valuable and may help you identify the root causes of poor performance struggles at work. 

5. Encourage employee self evaluation

Performance reviews should not be a lecture but rather a conversation or discussion. Provide space and empower the employee to reflect on their performance, offer root causes for their struggles, and play an active role in developing an action plan and staying accountable to improve. Involving them in the process can help keep the employee accountable to the process and results.

It also provides insights into their mindset and perception of their performance. Occasionally, they may identify areas where they don’t feel confident or where they’re performing lower than their personal expectations and goals. Good managers listen to this feedback, too, even if it doesn’t align with their views of the employee. If the employee wants to set additional personal goals, work with them and provide the necessary resources to succeed. 

Remember, your employee’s success is your success and the organization’s success. Motivate employees to play an active role in their performance success. 

6. Setting goals and expectations

Once you’ve identified the areas your employee needs (or wants) to improve, help them set goals and new expectations. In addition to the ultimate end goal, measure progress using smaller milestone goals. Set out these milestones and set key dates and expectations. 

Ensure you’re setting realistic goals. Use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound) goal-setting process. For example, it’s not a worthwhile goal to say, “Sally needs to improve her time to resolution average on customer support calls.” Instead, use the SMART guidelines to say, “Sally needs to lower her time to resolution on support calls from 15 minutes to 10 minutes by the end of Q2.”

Provide opportunities for the employee to measure their progress using available metrics. This could include providing them access to metrics you’re already tracking or setting up ongoing progress meetings to discuss them in person. 

7. Offer support and resources

Give your staff every opportunity to succeed by providing support and resources to support their journey. This could include:

  • Training: Send them to external training or courses on topics they need to learn more about to improve their poor performance (such as sales or emotional intelligence training). If enough other staff need the same support, consider bringing a workshop or course in-house. 
  • Mentorship: If the employee wants a mentor, you could be that mentor for them or connect them with another employee who has expressed interest in leadership opportunities. An ideal mentor already excels in the area your employee struggles with.
  • Resources: Provide the employee with refresher onboarding training or access to updated employee manuals and playbooks. They may have misplaced their original, or changes have been made since they were first hired. This can help refresh their memory and bring processes, best practices, and expectations top of mind.

8. Schedule a follow-up meeting

Performance reviews and providing formalized employee feedback isn’t something you only do when you’ve identified a concern. Ideally, they should be a regular event in your calendars for every direct report on your team. 

After every performance review, set a follow-up meeting to discuss the employee’s progress toward their improved performance goals. Depending on their next scheduled performance review, you can use that meeting to check-in. If additional check-ins are needed, schedule them now. This helps the employee prepare for those meetings and pushes them to ensure they have progress to report by that date. 

During dedicated follow-up meetings, discuss the progress made and any roadblocks or struggles that may have come up. Don’t be afraid to help them adjust their goals or milestones as needed. 

For example, your employee may have been absent for a few weeks while on bereavement leave or was pulled into an unexpected urgent project that required their full attention for a week. These types of events can contribute to slower-than-expected progress toward their milestones. Life (and business) don’t always go as planned, so be flexible and work with the employee to push the goal dates back to compensate. 

How do you tell an employee they need to improve without hurting their feelings?

It’s not easy to be the recipient of negative feedback. How you deliver the feedback must be done respectfully through a conversation, not a one-sided conversation or public berating. One of the best strategies we’ve heard from our customers is to sandwich the negative feedback between positive feedback. This starts and ends the discussion on a more positive note.  

Your tone of voice and words can also help convey the feedback more constructively. For example, speaking calmly and with authority (not speaking as their “buddy”) enables you to convey the seriousness of the situation. 

Speaking clearly and with specific examples helps the employees see the validity of your feedback. Including a discussion of the next steps and offering support to help them improve is much better than just saying, “You’re not good enough,” without offering a solution. 

Treat them how you’d want to be treated if the roles were reversed. Treat employees with respect and dignity, and your negative feedback is more likely to be received positively without hurting your employee’s feelings. 

How do you tell an employee their work isn’t good enough?

Here’s a sample script you can use when providing an employee with negative feedback. Fill in the blanks with details of the employee’s performance:

Sample script to tell an employee they need to improve

Jorge, we’ve noticed how diligent you’ve been at [task].

However, the customer service rep job description says you should be [achieving this goal]. Our records show you’re only achieving [metric related to their performance]. Let’s discuss why that might be. [Open discussion to find root cause]

Jorge, let’s talk about how we can solve this and improve your performance [Open discussion of goals and resources available to support the employee].

One last thing I wanted to mention…I wanted to give you kudos for [a task they’re doing well]. Your hard work in this area has been noticed by your peers. 


👉 Want more tips to help your employees excel? Read our top recommended ways to improve call center agent performance. 

Using AI tools to gather evidence of employee performance

As a manager, your job is to help employees succeed. After all, their success reflects positively on your ability as a manager. If your organization is tracking metrics related to employee performance, you can use the insights from these metrics to provide constructive feedback to help your employees meet or exceed their goals and the goals of your organization. 

Idiomatic is an AI-driven customer intelligence platform where you can identify customer issues related to employee performance. It analyzes customer feedback data from sources like  customer surveys and customer support interactions and help you understand the “why” behind negative customer feedback. Sometimes, that “why” is related to their interactions with your staff. 

Here’s a video that shows how we do it:


When your organization can use customer feedback data from data points like forms, email, phone, and chat systems, you can better understand which employees may be struggling to meet expectations and potentially get valuable, actionable feedback and ideas to help them improve. 

Request a demo of Idiomatic to learn how you can better evaluate your employees through the voice of customer feedback.

Try Idiomatic for free today