Managing underperformance

Addressing underperformance is a behaviour under the ILS component ‘Shares learning and supports others’/’guides, mentors and develops people’ which falls under the capability ‘Supports/Cultivates productive working relationships’. When discussing your management skills and performance [either in an application or at interview], handling underperformance may need to be mentioned.

The APSC’s 2006 publication ‘Sharpening the focus: Managing performance in the APS’, points out that:

“Performance management is an essential component of a constructive workplace environment. It is aimed at serving a number of purposes, including:

  • improving individual and organisational performance
  • supporting skill development and career planning
  • aligning individual work with whole of government initiatives
  • providing measures of organisational and individual accountability
  • planning and monitoring individual performance within the achievement of organisational and business goals
  • recognising and rewarding good performance,
  • improving average performance and managing underperformance
  • from a workforce planning perspective, identifying and developing required capabilities for a capable, adaptive and effective workforce.”

In May 2017 the ANAO released a report ‘Managing Underperformance in the Australian Public Service’ [ANAO Report No.52 2016–17].  The Audit Office examined eight agencies and concluded that there is “significant room for improvement in the management of underperformance”.

Recruit managers who can manage

One of the key learnings in relation to barriers relating to ‘Management culture’ is to “Place more weight on accurately assessing applicants for manager positions on their people management skills in recruitment and selection processes.” This means seeking evidence that a potential manager/supervisor/team leader takes managing performance seriously, has the skills and experience that demonstrates this, and is confirmed by referee reports from more senior managers and staff.


The report identifies that: “One root cause of underperformance occurs when recruitment processes fail to select candidates that closely match the capabilities and personal attributes required for the work at the agency, combined with the under-use of probationary periods to actively test the suitability of newly appointed employees.” [1.16]

Further, the report points out that: “The probationary period is an important part of the recruitment and selection process of new employees. It provides an opportunity to confirm an employee’s suitability to the agency and job, for both the employer and the employee. Action to cease employment during probation is a legitimate action which recognises that not all selection decisions result in an outcome that is right for the employer or the employee. It is important that agencies use this period proactively to manage any performance issues that may arise.” [2.22] This section goes on to outline APS employees’ rights during this period.

The APSC provides advice on probation.

What is underperformance?

According to the Fairwork Ombudsman underperformance or poor performance can be exhibited in the following ways:

  • unsatisfactory work performance, that is, a failure to perform the duties of the position or to perform the standard required
    on-compliance with workplace policies, rules or procedures
  • unacceptable behaviour in the workplace
  • disruptive or negative behaviour that impacts on co-workers.

The office points out that:  “Underperformance is not the same as misconduct. Misconduct is very serious behaviour such as theft or assault which may warrant instant dismissal.”

The ANAO report clarifies what underperformance means in the APS and distinguishes underperformance from breaches of the Code of Conduct and health issues.

“1.12 The term ‘underperformance’ is not used in the PS Act, rather the term is ‘unsatisfactory performance of duties’, which is not defined in the Act. In accordance with its ordinary meaning ‘unsatisfactory performance’ would extend to any situation where an employee does not have the capacity or ability to satisfactorily perform duties. An employee can be performing to the best of their ability and still be performing unsatisfactorily.

1.13 The Australian Government Solicitor advises APS agencies against using underperformance processes for breaches of the Code of Conduct, or where there is a health issue that should be dealt with by way of management of a medical problem.

1.14 The key purpose of actively managing underperformance is to assist the employee to be able to consistently meet the performance expectations of their job and work level standard and thereby ensure the performance and productivity of the agency. It is only when it becomes clear after a reasonable period of active assistance that the employee is unable to meet expectations that the focus of underperformance management shifts to considering other remedies including reclassification to a lower classification or termination.”

Report’s value for managers/applicants

This report is useful for managers/applicants as it provides:

  • An outline of the legal and regulatory framework for managing underperformance

Public Service Act 1999 and Regulations, and Australian Public Service Commissioner’s Directions

Fair Work Act 2009

Enterprise agreements

Internal procedures

Employee action/avenues of redress [including Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, administrative law and laws relating to breach of contract]

  • Stages of underperformance management.

The report provides a three-stage framework for managing underperformance. This framework highlights “the key role that managers have in supporting employees whose performance falls below expectations and in deciding whether or not underperforming employees enter into more structured or formal underperformance procedures.” [1.18] What is unknown is how many underperformers are ‘managed around’ rather than actively managed.

  • Barriers agencies need to address better managing underperformance.

Ten commonly identified barriers are identified, classified into four categories: management culture; support to managers; manager capability; and other barriers.

  • Practices underpinning effective underperformance management.

Key practices are:

  • commitment of managers to performance management;
  • clarity and consistency of performance expectations;
  • provision of feedback; and
  • periodic review/evaluation of agencies’ performance management frameworks to improve procedures and practices.
How do you manage underperformance?

If you are faced with an interview question about how you have or would manage underperformance, applying a ‘best practice’ approach is likely to be a good start.

The Fairwork Ombudsman offers a five step guide to managing underperformance:

  • Identify the problem
  • Assess and analyse the problem
  • Meet with the employee to discuss the problem
  • Jointly devise a solution
  • Monitor performance.

This guide identifies common performance issues, possible causes, and actions. The employee issues covered are:

  • does not undertake work as required, showing signs of apathy and laziness.
  • does not appear to understand job requirements or directions.
  • will not follow directions or perform tasks as required.
  • fails to acknowledge they are underperforming.
  • does not complete work tasks to the required cynical of work environment and tasks, bringing negative options to the work environment.
  • is regularly absent without cause.
Barriers to managing underperformance

The ANAO report summarises in Table 2.10 some of the barriers to managing underperformance. These barriers are grouped under four categories:

  • Management culture
  • Support to managers
  • Manager capability
  • Other barriers.

Under Management culture, one of the barriers listed is the lack of reward for managers’ people management skills and lack of accountability for people management responsibilities. This is explained by reference to promotion based on technical skills, an absence of people management skills in performance agreements, and not addressing an underperforming employee not being seen as underperformance on the part of the manager.

In relation to Manager capability, managers are fearful of reprisal claims of bullying and harassment. One of the Other barriers, is the difficulty of identifying in a specific and objective way some types of APS work, such as policy development.

These barriers point to the need to:

  • Upgrade how managers are recruited.
  • Educate staff on the difference between appropriate manager behaviour and inappropriate behaviour such as bullying and harassment.
  • Examine and apply capabilities to performance management, including for work such as policy development, for which there is now several capability frameworks.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.