Employees are hired to perform their work at a certain level, as set out in their job description and their annual appraisals. Sometimes an employee’s performance fails to reach that level, and managers need to be equipped to manage the performance of those employees to bring them back to the expected level. Handling these conversations badly can often lead to personal grievances, and a failure to handle them in a timely manner or at all, can lead to productivity issues, low morale and even health and safety issues.

Managers need to be equipped to have focussed conversations with employees to explain the gap between expectations and performance, and to work with the employee to understand the reasons for the drop-off in performance, and to support them to return their delivery to expected levels. The key factor is preparation. A clearly defined process, combined with training and support, can give managers confidence and clarity about how to structure and hold such conversations, and therefore to successfully guide employees back to strong performance.

It is neither discrimination nor harassment to require an employee to deliver the work they were hired to do, and to the level they are expected to do it at. However, an important factor to consider is that sometimes performance is affected by things outside the employee’s control (such as illness, or personal circumstances, for example), and understanding the CAUSE of poor performance before taking action is fundamental to treating the employee fairly. An overly strict approach, without understanding the cause, could exacerbate the problem and give rise to a personal grievance.

It is also important to remember that the employer will always have a role to play in helping an employee deliver results.  This will happen in various ways, but might include correcting flawed systems, processes and equipment, improving planning and communication or providing additional support and training.

Poor performance can also take time to correct and it is necessary to develop a plan and a time frame during which the employer and employee work together to correct issues.  It is also critical that the consequences of not correcting poor performance are clear to the employee. Performance Improvement Plans (sometimes known as PIP’s) are important, formalised documents that set out

  • the expected performance levels
  • the performance gap
  • a time frame for achieving the desired performance levels
  • a meeting schedule where progress will be monitored and issued addressed
  • what the employee and the company will do to rectify performance
  • what the consequences will be for ongoing non-performance at the end of the PIP.

Termination for uncorrected poor performance is possible, but it should only be contemplated after the employer has made every effort to assist the employee to improve, and the employer must have a good record of what those efforts were.  Clear warnings (written) should be given when performance does not improve satisfactorily, and the employee should be made very clear about the consequences of not meeting the performance deadlines on time.

If it becomes necessary to do so, it is wise to terminate an underperforming employee using a thorough and fair process similar to the disciplinary process, where an employee’s rights are respected and a unbiased decision is made after full examination of the prior process and evidence.

An important but often overlooked factor in these processes is that other employees are witness to how the employer is treating their colleague, and this can have a real impact (either positive or negative) on workplace morale and culture.