HR Pros – 4 Potential Causes of Employee Poor Performance

There are many reasons why employees can’t or won’t perform up to supervisory expectations or even up to their own potential. Often there are clues that suggest the ultimate source of poor performance but anecdotal evidence of today’s performance shortfall not sufficient to diagnose the underlying issue.

A comprehensive look at the environment in which the employee works is in order. Because the objective of initial performance counselings must be improvement, it’s important to assess the person, the supervisor and context in which the work takes place. If it is determined that real improvements are possible, this will help in crafting the performance improvement plan. In those cases when termination is the end result of attempted performance improvement, knowing the causes can help you can tailor the discussions to create the smoothest, most professional and compassionate separation process. It will also support an affirmative defense if needed.

If the person is in the wrong position, demanding higher performance can unnecessarily frustrate and stress the employee. It would also be useless if there is something amiss with the supervisor or work atmosphere. It is best to conduct a comprehensive look at the overall picture.

This article explores the four different dimensions that might combine to cause an employee’s poor performance.

The Four Dimensions of Employee Poor Performance

1. It’s the employee

2. It’s the supervisor/poor employee preparation

3. It’s the job

4. It’s the workplace atmosphere

1. It’s the employee

There are several potential issues with an origin in the person themselves. Some may be technical and some may be relational (can’t get along with others). Of course, if the person lacks technical skills there could also be issues with recruitment. In this case, attention can turn to whether there is time and capacity for the person to learn the required skills. Depending upon the company investment to this point and the employee’s capacity to learn the new skills, additional training may work.

Below is a listing of potential internal issues which would contribute to poor performance. The employee may:

  • Lack requisite technical skills (recruitment process?)
  • Lack requisite people relations skills (recruitment process?)
  • Lack work ethic (references checked?)
  • Be an acceptable performer but is unhappy and wants a different position (self-sabotage)
  • Have an undisclosed learning disability or medical condition affecting performance
  • Have problems with authority: rejects idea that someone will judge their work
  • Have mental health challenges: depression, personality disorder, PTSD, etc.

2. It’s the supervisor or poor employee preparation

Sometimes the person has the capacity to perform at a higher level but has not been given the initial tools and direction to create an opportunity for success. The result can be unspoken or disparate assumptions about what is considered good performance by the supervisor. Perhaps the supervisor has failed to meet regularly with the employee. Employees need the opportunity to ask questions privately and to admit they might need more information. Perhaps the supervisor is a poor communicator.

Below is a listing of potential issues which may originate with how the employee is readied for the position or managed once in the job:

  • Employee does not understand the relative priorities of various tasks
  • Employee does not know company policies or procedures
  • Employee does not understand what supervisor likes, wants or dislikes

3. It’s the job

Sometimes the person is capable and knows what to do but the volume is just too high for one person to handle. Another issue is whether the employee has the information and tools to complete their work in an optimum fashion. Poor job design can be the culprit.

There are natural groupings of tasks or assignments that allow a person with certain strengths to be successful. When unrelated or markedly different tasks are thrown together, it may be difficult to find the unique individual who is good at all of them. An example would be a position that requires high-level people relational skills AND high-level scientific skills. You can see the point.

Below is a listing of potential job design issues that might contribute to poor performance.

  • Job volume is based on extremely high performer and the current person is new
  • Job contains too many unrelated accountabilities
  • Quality standards are impossible to meet
  • Heavy workload is caused by temporary or permanent addition of work due to long vacancy in a peer position
  • Job qualifications used in recruitment don’t actually match what is required for the position

4. It’s the workplace atmosphere

Most of us have experienced a toxic workplace environment in which good employees are so distracted by stress and drama that they cannot properly attend to job performance. Studies show that toxic coworkers, bosses and an otherwise negative work culture are associated with productivity decreases. It’s not enough to have the right people and the right goals; someone has to ensure that the workplace is conducive to employees reaching their potential.

Here are potential environmental issues that might be a source of sub-par performance.

  • The workplace atmosphere is overly negative with toxic employees and power struggles
  • A powerful informal leader is calling the shots, contradicting the actual supervisors
  • Good people aren’t consistently praised/rewarded and become disinterested, disengaged
  • Negative conduct is not redirected so that coworkers are stressed by abuse and intimidation


Performance issues can be a result of one of the four dimensions noted here but it can also be a result of a complex combination of more than one. When there are several poor performers or a trusted and valued performer’s success begins to slide, it may be helpful to look at the supervisory team or the department as a whole. Often, companies are well-served to bring in an external consultant to present a seasoned, objective assessment of all the barriers to departmental success. In any event, if you pay attention to all potential causes the chance of successful performance intervention is greatly increased.

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