Managing poor performance is an essential skill which many managers either do not have or simply avoid. Managers find it easier to manage employees with good performance but are not so adept when it comes to improving poorer performers. There is no point pretending that every employee is the right match in terms of their skills, capability, attitude and cultural fit, says Delia Goldring, FSN writer and Visiting Professor in HRM at Middlesex University.
In many organisations poor performers can and do affect sales, revenue and profitability and affect good performing employees who may not want to work with a person who is unreliable and incapable of correcting their mistakes. Allowing poor performance to continue unchecked may result in the departure of these high performers who get impatient with the lack poor performance management.
Joanne Sujansky, President of KEYGroup Consultancy, believes that many managers fall down on the job when it is time to deal with poor performers. ‘Perhaps they don't want to rock the boat, fearing that poor performers will retaliate with even worse performance. Or perhaps they don't know how to confront someone professionally. So they do nothing, and everyone suffers.’
As Stuart Duff, head of development at occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola, said ‘most companies just reward the top performers and ignore the poor performers. The reason for this is that it is difficult to manage performance to the extent that managers can be confident enough to fire someone. Seemingly they claim that they are too busy to manage their staff properly. However, those organisations that do set their staff clear goals, and manage their progress towards the achievement of those goals over a long period of time, can then act on the results and reap the rewards.’
It is important that before an employee’s poor performance is addressed that the manager determines whether the issue is caused by a lack of ability or a lack of motivation on the part of the employee. It may be that an employee with a lack of ability may have been badly matched with the job at the recruitment stage or they may have been promoted to a position that's too demanding for them, or they no longer have the support that previously helped them to perform well.
A lack of ability is a harder problem to tackle than one of low motivation. As the Mind Tools Website points out ‘Someone with 100% motivation and 75% ability can often achieve above-average performance. But a worker with only 25% ability won't be able to achieve the type of performance you expect, regardless of his or her level of motivation.’
All employees, including those that are underperforming need clarity about what is expected of them and need to be equipped with the skills, information and tools to enable them to do their job as well as the opportunity to utilise their potential and be motivated and engaged. The manager’s role is therefore to enable an employee to succeed, by creating a motivational climate, agreeing objectives and standards expected as well as providing appropriate support.
So, it is vital to be certain that the issue with the performance of an employee is one of true poor performance. Underperformance occurs when someone has not achieved agreed outcomes so a manager needs to ensure that the issue is not related to a lack of clearly defined outcomes. If the outcomes have not been defined or were defined badly, this makes it impossible to determine whether the outcomes were actually met and the issue may not be a case of true underperformance in terms of a lack of skills or capability etc.
If an employee is not meeting expectations the manager needs to commence a performance management process with them as soon as possible. It is better to address the problem early, rather than wait until it becomes an even greater problem.
The key to tackling underperformance is to be consistent, to undergo a thorough and fair process and most importantly to document everything at every step of the process. This will also help avoid the anxiety associated with dealing with underperformance for both manager and employee and will help to prevent the manager and employee ending up in conflict.
How should managers go about tackling issues of poor performance?
Holding a Performance Meeting
Once the poor performance issue has been identified, all the facts and information available need to be collated, including the impacts of the underperformance. The employee needs to be given time to prepare and invited to attend a performance meeting to discuss the situation.
At the meeting, the manager must be explicit about what results are required, both in terms of timescales and outcomes. These must be realistic and achievable by the employee in terms of both the future and more immediate improvements that need to be made. The manager should outline the situation the management perspective and then invite the employee for comments and questions.
Employees will often blame external sources for their poor performance before admitting their own fault. Where this is the case the manager may need to adjourn the meeting whilst these claims are investigated and either verified or rejected as reasons for the poor performance.
At the meeting it is important to be specific about the issues, for example if an employee has repeatedly done something incorrect or been late on a number of occasions the manager should detail the frequency and dates and work with them to identify things they can do to improve the situation. ‘Simply telling the employee what was wrong won't help him change his behaviour,’ says Sujansky. ‘Always take the time to brainstorm ideas on how the employee can improve future performance or avoid the mistake in the future.’
It is important to remove opinions and emotions from any poor performance discussions, managers must present facts and be respectful towards the employee at all times. The meeting must not be a personal attack, it is a joint problem to be solved and the actions to be taken must be agreed upon. The employee may not realise there is a problem and sometimes only needs the expectations to be made clear in order to improve. Or they may know there is a problem but genuinely have no idea how to resolve it and may need some help.
The employee must be informed of the sanctions for failing to comply, including if necessary disciplinary action. Further training, if relevant and practicable, should also be discussed. If appropriate and only if mutually agreed, other alternative employment may be a solution to the issue, although an employee must not be coerced into accepting a lower paid and/or lower status position without his or her consent.
A date should be set for a follow-up meeting, details of what outcomes must be achieved by then and how the employee can ask for extra support if required should be explained. It is important to provide targets and timeframes in which they must improve and the manager must stick to them.
Follow up and Review Performance Results
A consistent approach and regular reviews are the key to managing under performance. The manager must follow up on agreed upon actions, monitor the situation and review results.
If performance has still not improved another meeting should be held at which the employee is informed that the process to take disciplinary or capability action within the relevant employment legislative requirements will be now be followed
Managing under performance in this way may not be enough to help improve the employee’s performance but as long as the manager has been consistent and has reasonably exhausted all other options then any further action taken by the manager will be deemed fair.