The accountants’ ultimate guide to managing low performers, the non-confrontational way

The bigger your practice gets, the more chances you have of having to deal with people problems (that's not rocket science!). This is why we ran a webinar with Annabel Kaye, employment law and GDPR expert. Janine, our content co-ordinator wrote this article based on the excellent advice Annabel shared in the webinar. Over to you Janine!

This article explains why we often fear having difficult conversations when managing low performers. It offers guidance on non-confrontational ways of having a conversation with a low performer, i.e. to get them to shape up, or ship out. 

What stops us having conversations with our low performers?

Given that so many of us avoid having these tricky conversations, it's worth looking at what is stopping us having them.

Undoubtedly, FEAR is what stops us from having these vital but seemingly very difficult conversations when managing low performers. In the back of our mind there’s always the fear of saying something wrong that could lead to being sued, or, taken to an employment tribunal. And before you know it we start off in a very negative place. And that's if we know what to say in the first place to our low performer!

The fears of not only legal consequences but the emotional consequences of potentially rupturing the working relationship are very real concerns, and therefore, avoided by many of us. We can be quite worried about knocking someone back by saying something negative, which may, in turn, stop them performing altogether and hurt their feelings in the process. Yes, we need to speak up, but what if they leave? Recruiting and finding a suitable replacement can be hard, but on the other hand they are not performing anyway. Many of us take the view that maybe it's better the devil you know?

So, we find ourselves in a perpetual cycle, stuck between a rock and a hard place, unsure of how to proceed, whilst our firm continues to suffer, staff morale takes a nose dive and our stress levels rocket!

So, what can we do to nip performance issues in the bud?

Ultimately the responsibility for work performance lies with us. As the owner of our firm we create the environment for our people and so it is our role to help people to perform. If you are going to manage your low performers well, you’ve got to move out of being the fee-earner, to realising that your role is to help the employees or apprentices that report into you to perform well. Forget anything fancy with managing low performers well, most of us, if we are brutally honest don't do the basics of good people management well.

Managing low performers basics means ensuring that they know exactly what is expected of them and why. We often need to connect the dots for them, i.e. if you have a junior wanting to get to the next level, you may need to tell them:

These are the core skills you need to master in order to be considered for the next role, would you like to start mastering them now?

If in this scenario you have a staff member who says no, then you both have clear expectations of why they will not go further up in your firm. And, more importantly you BOTH know this.

Very often, we do not share with the employees what we expect them to be capable of, e.g. what skills aptitudes and attitudes they need to display. However, there is often the assumption within a firm that everybody knows these expectations. One of the biggest tips about performance management and having these conversations is, that you need to share those measures with people. The sooner you have them, the better. These conversations should come well before a performance management conversation when you have a staff member not doing it. If you get this stuff right, generally, people should be able to go to their own job and say, ‘My boss measures me on X. I can self-measure me on X, am I falling short or not?

The reality is, it is YOUR responsibility to build your practice. And that means, you have the responsibility to not just win the work, but to build a team beneath you to service the work. If you neglect to build a strong performing team, you'll find that your team keeps failing to deliver. And then, you have the age-old problem of new business in/old business out the back-door. A revolving door of new clients and staff will never give you the firm foundation you need to grow your practice.

Let's face it, most small firm owners, in order to achieve our goals, are very time-limited. This normally translates into the fact that supervision is never quite the top of the list. And that's if you like supervision in the first place. If you hate supervising people or know you will struggle to give your team the supervision time they really need, then look for new people who are experienced and only need minimal supervision. Do not delude yourself with, ‘I’m going to hire the magic person who will just do it all, and I’ll never have to have any kind of conversation’.

There comes a point where you just can't supervise effectively another person in your team. This is normally from about 8 direct reports. As a result, your role actually then becomes training and developing people in your team to supervise the more junior people. At some point or another in your journey to be a one million pound practice you’ve got to start moving from fee earner to supervisor, and then when you’ve stopped being a supervisor, you’re going to be the CEO of the supervisors who get the people to do the work.

Tips for having a conversation with members of staff that are low performers.

Tip 1: Depersonalise your response

When managing low performers, nobody wants to have this conversation. You could dive in and go:

You’re a very negative person, always complaining.

Obviously that’s going to ruffle feathers, or you could go:

I can’t help but notice when you’re out with other people you seem to be very quick to judge negatively what they’re doing. Is there a problem with your job that I don’t know about?

You don’t have to go in with this sort of approach (it rarely works out well!):

You’re in the wrong, I’m in the right, here’s the blame – fix it.

In other words, when you have to have the low performance conversation, have a much wider conversation. And in these conversations you ask people:

Is there a problem? Is there a reason why you’re manifesting this behaviour that I’ve observed?’ and then... stay quiet and listen! In other words.

The more you can de-personalise the conversation the better. Think about, and share:

  • What did I observe?
  • What was the impact that I witnessed?
  • Keep your opinions out of it and just say what you saw.

Tip 2: Remove the 'blaming and shaming!' especially when managing low performers

It's all too easy to get frustrated and go:

Oh, so-and-so’s stuffed that up again, I must go and talk to them now.

Going in angry or exasperated to a conversation about low performance doesn't help anyone. Venting about how they’ve caused you inconvenience, is not going to improve their performance.

Take the blaming out of it before it's too late. It's your role as their boss to help them perform to the level you require. Which neatly brings us onto Tip 3.

Tip 3: Is it you creating the issue?

Being blunt, very often it's you the boss who has created the issue. From expecting:

  • Your new members of staff to sink or swim because you really don't have the time to properly show them how to do the job...
  • Your staff to pick up new skills by magic or osmosis, such as "can you start to handle new client telephone enquiries"
  • Your junior staff to be excellent at paying attention to detail, but also asking them to answer the phone when the receptionist is at lunch or on holiday
  • A member of staff to pay particular attention to a certain client and give them everything they need, but not get behind with their work
  • A member of staff to train the new 'green' apprentice but still be as productive as they were being before they had to look after the new apprentice

Given that we are the owner of the firm, often we are the biggest single contributing factor to a member of staff's low performance. So think about how are you contributing and what you are doing. Even if you are absolutely sure that it's not you, it's them, start on the basis that it could well be you, and that way you don’t have to disrupt the relationship unnecessarily.

Many of us half manage performance. We get to a certain point and then think, ‘I’ve had enough, what do I need to do to terminate this employee?’ If you are always managing performance and everybody knows where they are, it’s very simple to bolt-in an early stage informal warning, a written warning, and a dismissal if that’s where you’re going. The idea is that performance should be properly measured, people should be given a warning if they’re under-performing, given a chance to improve. And then if that doesn’t work and they’re given support, they’re out. That’s the underlying idea.

A simple test to determine whether you are doing your performance management correctly is to ask yourself how would the person react if you were to tell them they were fired? If they would be totally surprised and angry because this had been an out of the blue shock, then you're not doing your job properly; performance management, dismissals, unfairness, and psychological relationships, all come from predictability and consistency.

If people expect you to walk in a room and fire them because they know they can’t do the job, they won’t be happy to be fired, but they will not regard you as an evil monster.

Tip 4: Dealing with those who feel entitled

You've probably been in the situation where a team member will say something like:

I’ve been here three years, I should be seen as a manager now.


I've now got my ACCA I'm due a massive pay rise and promotion.

In this scenario, the fear is that your good performer will just up and leave if you don't give in to their demands. After all, there is a massive shortage of talent out there at the moment.

I'm sure you've been there when a so-so performer triumphantly announces they are leaving for a role with more responsibility and more money. And all you can think is, good luck to them. Do they (and their new employer) really know what they have let themselves in for?

In this situation it is your responsibility to actually detail to them the skills and knowledge that they need to demonstrate on a day-to-day basis before they are due the pay rise or the promotion. And in this scenario if they are reasonable people they will happily agree to be put on a plan to get there. Unsurprisingly, step one of the plan is often to get good at your own job.

Tip 5: Don't avoid dealing with low performers or risk losing your high performers

The best way to ruin team morale is to leave a poor performer in a high performing team. This is because the high performers will pretty quickly start to resent that they’re not getting any more money but they’re doing their colleague’s work. Whilst you’re thinking it might demotivate the poor performer, or the team around them, if you mention it to them, you’re looking the wrong way. It has the exact opposite effect. You can ruin your team's morale by leaving the poor performer unfixed. You’ve probably got about a 90-day window when someone is obviously below par before your top performers will start to become unsettled. You’ve probably got six-months before your top performers will be actively job hunting. Team morale only works when the high performers are happy performing and staying.

When interviewing, how can we make sure that we don’t hire someone who’s not going to make it?

Given that the easy way is not to have any low performers, it makes sense to make the right recruitment decision in the first place. But this is never guaranteed. You’re always going to make some recruitment errors, because:

  • you’re not psychic
  • people don’t always fully understand what you want, and
  • you are always going to have some recruitment failures.

In other words, regardless of your best intentions, you’re always going to have to manage people who are not doing what you thought they would do, to the standard you thought they would. What you can do in recruitment is to reduce the amount of intervention and development you need to do with your employees.

Too many accountancy firms focus their recruitment heavily around qualifications, and aptitude to a greater/lesser extent. They don't look at cultural fit or whether the potential new hire 'gets' the firm's 'why'. This is because we often recruit in our own image, and assume that everyone in the world is like us, and is interested in us. For example, if you’ve got a team full of people who are nuts about football, and you introduce that team to someone whose total passion in life is the ballet, and they hate football, you’re going to have to have a very good induction plan to get these people working well alongside each other. But your firm needs you to add some diversity into your team, otherwise you’re going to run into problems that if you all think the same, you’re all going to be blind-sided by the same problems.

To give people the confidence to perform, the confidence to come back to you and go, ‘I’ve got a problem’, they’ve got to feel they have some kind of relationship with you. I think we need to be very careful to check that we are expecting too much of people, with their experience and knowledge level. Quite a lot of the time we hire someone junior to do a much more senior job, because it's cheaper. And then we complain that we’re spending all that amount of time supervising them.

How many times have you hired an apprentice because they are cheap and you just need another pair of hands? To then find out, that it's not working out because they just need far too much of your time to get anything done properly?

It's paramount when recruiting to think about:-

  • Will the candidate be a team fit?
  • What do I need them to achieve?
  • What do I need them to know already before I get them, in order to achieve that?
  • What can I teach them?
  • The interview process itself. Do you allow time to watch how they interact with other team members? Do you set them tasks that can determine whether they have the potential to do what you need them to?


  • It's your responsibility to provide an environment where your team can flourish and where you manage low performance correctly. To do this, set aside time to have a dialogue with the team member, and, encourage that open dialogue. Remember, you’ve got to help your people to tell you what’s going wrong, rather than blaming and shaming.
  • Have the basics in place. Ensure that you and your team members know what is expected of them so that these can be measured.
  • Tightly defined job descriptions and opportunities. Be absolutely clear on ‘this is what I need you to do’, 'this is the career ladder' and 'this is what you need to do if you want to climb it.' (All club members get access to a suite of job descriptions and tools to manage their people's expectations.)
  • Don’t base your sole hiring decisions on where the individual is in their technical journey. Think about will they fit into the team? Are they helping to build a strong and robust team? Do they have the right attitude? Do they get our 'why'?
  • When it comes to managing people and getting them to perform, you’ve got to have realistic expectations.

So in conclusion, with the right recruitment processes, tightly defined expectations and measures plus an understanding that it's your responsibility to create the right environment, with good supervision and open communication, then you are well on your way to being able to have non-confrontational conversations with low performers minus that fear!

Ready to kick-start the growth of your firm?