By Len Adams, CPC, CTS
Dealing with a poorly performing employee can be frustrating. It can be complex and time consuming to make sure you get the right result – an improvement in their performance, or failing that, them being managed out of the organization in a fair and legal way.
It is likely you will meet with a poorly performing employee at least twice; the first time to tell them how their performance is ineffective and set targets for improvement, and the second to review their progress and make a decision about their future. In practice, you may have several other steps to follow, but the conversations will follow the same pattern, and if you master that pattern, you will find it easier to deal with any conversation about performance effectively.
And what is the pattern? You prepare. You talk. You listen. You consider. You decide. You communicate your decision. In basic terms, it is as simple as that.
Preparation involves making sure you know company policy and what authority you have to make decisions; you know where the employee’s performance falls short (and you have specific examples), you’ve planned how you want the meeting to go, you’ve given the employee appropriate notice and information in accordance with company policy, and you’ve identified a suitable time and venue.
Next, you talk. You may have a predetermined structure to follow or perhaps an agenda you have drawn up, in either case, you need to explain the reason for the meeting and what you want to achieve – to discuss the performance issues and what needs to be done about them. Then you give them the evidence of their performance shortfalls.
Now you give the employee the opportunity to talk and you need to listen. The quickest way to make sure someone doesn’t engage with you is to make them think you’re ignoring what they say. And the only way you are going to get an improvement in performance is if they are working harder, better, or differently. You need their participation. That said, if they refuse to make the effort, then you can still take action. It’s not about handing over control. It’s about managing the situation.
It may be that there are some issues that you’re not aware of. They may not have been trained to carry out that particular task. They may have to rely on a third party which is causing the problems. They may have a health problem that impacts on their ability. There can be as many reasons as there are staff.
They may also get emotional. You might face anger or distress. You can never tell how someone will react until you’re in that situation. Don’t let this side-track you. If they become too emotional to carry on, take a break, but always make sure you get back to the matter at hand. As a general rule, having evidence of performance issues makes it easier to deal with any emotional reactions since it is harder to ignore facts. It also helps you deal with those who might use an emotional reaction as a tactic to delay the discussion.
This leads neatly on to considering the information you now have. No effective manager would make a business decision without having the relevant facts or without weighing the options. Performance management is as much a business decision as any other issue you will face. Staff pay is often the biggest budgetary outgoing, where even the lowest paid member of staff can cost tens of thousands over the course of two or three years. Dealing with performance issues is a key opportunity to ensure you get the best return on that investment.
Now you have the decision to make. You’ll know from your preparation which options are open to you: it may be a verbal or written warning, it may be dismissal. Whatever it is, ensuring that you have been fair and followed policy will mean your decision is more likely to stand if the employee decides to challenge it. It would be unfortunate to end up fighting a legal battle and losing, just for the sake of following the process properly.
Once you have made your decision, you need to communicate it to the employee. This needs to be done in the most appropriate way. Face-to-face is usually best, with written confirmation including an action plan. This should be given to them as quickly as possible to both capitalize on the momentum from your discussion and to reinforce its importance. There should also be clear demarcation between responsibilities, especially since the employee is the only one who can improve their performance.
And how do you know if you get it right? The employee goes away knowing what they have to do, how they have to do it, when they need to do it by, they have no illusions about the part they have to play, they know the support they can expect from you and the organization, and they understand the consequences of not meeting their targets.
And finally, it can be uncomfortable for any manager having to have these discussions with an employee, but if you do it in a fair, reasonable and supportive way, you can be their biggest ally, even if, in the end, it doesn’t work out.