How to... address poor performance

Poor staff performance is one of employers’ most common complaints

Managers faced with difficult conversations about work standards and potentially litigious staff often avoid dealing with it or don’t handle it very well. But ignoring the issue can demotivate other staff, so tackle poor performance firmly.

1) Assess capability

If the quality of a member of staff’s work is a cause for concern you need to assess their capability to do the job. This means monitoring and assessing their skills, ability, aptitude and knowledge in relation to their role. Poor performance is one of the potentially fair reasons for dismissal, provided that a fair capability procedure, or disciplinary procedure, has been correctly followed. But do not confuse incapability with misconduct.

2) Set clear standards

Ensure that employees know your organisation’s minimum standards for performance at work. Put in place clear rules and guidelines. Be precise. If you can’t explain exactly what you expect your employees to deliver you’ll have a problem explaining to an employment tribunal why you have reasonable belief that a dismissed employee was incompetent.

3) Provide feedback

Regular objective feedback is key to addressing performance problems. Be friendly, but keep a degree of separation from your employees. In addition to the exchanges that take place during the working day, meet with employees regularly (every two or three months) to discuss performance and to give and receive informal feedback. Such meetings are useful for reiterating standards, providing relevant information and establishing agreements and expectations on both sides.

4) Don’t delay

Act as soon as you notice an employee is not performing work to the required standard. Delaying or doing nothing may make the performance problem worse.

5) Focus on the facts

Investigating will help you collate an accurate picture of the employee’s performance. The first steps will be informal. Discuss the matter with the employee, giving specific examples. Create an informal performance improvement plan (Pip) together and ensure they are fully supported.

6) Give time to improve

Allow the employee reasonable time to improve. Two or three months is appropriate in most cases. If there’s insufficient improvement, move to the formal capability process and ensure all procedural elements, such as the right to be accompanied, are observed. The Pip should continue alongside the formal process.

7) Clarify duty to act

Some employees may respond to their performance being challenged by submitting a grievance citing bullying and harassment. When faced with this many managers simply abandon the whole thing. To avoid opportunistic harassment complaints ensure your dignity at work procedure points out that managers have a right and a duty to manage. Provide evidence of poor work performance. Ask why the employee thinks they are being bullied. An example question might be: “Help me understand why you think I’m treating you less favourably than anyone else who performs at this level?” Putting the onus back on the employee helps to hold them to account.

Key points

  • Communicate clear and measurable standards

  • Monitor performance

  • Give feedback for early correction

  • Investigate fully and create a performance improvement plan

  • Provide sufficient time to improve and escalate to a formal process if standards are not met

  • Dismiss the employee if they cannot meet the standard required and no further adjustments can be made to help them