Managing staff performance

Critical to dealing with underperformance is the capacity to identify any underperformance as soon as it occurs and preferably within the minimum employment period (probation) of a new employee, and to deal with it immediately. Underperformance or poor performance can be seen in failure (or partial failure) to perform designated duties, non-compliance with workplace policies or procedures and unacceptable or disruptive workplace behaviour. It is differentiated from serious misconduct such as theft or assault.

Reasons for poor performance may be as simple as the employee not being advised of what is expected of his/her work on commencement, or personal issues that are not known by the employer. Employers should clearly identify the reasons for underperformance before considering terminating the employment of an underperforming employee, noting that the cost of hiring and training a new employee would often exceed the task of retraining an otherwise acceptable employee.

Once identified, it is important to deal with even minor issues promptly as the employee may not be aware of the problem and accordingly be unlikely to change without intervention. Consequently, the business will continue to suffer. Not addressing minor issues as they surface has the potential to become entrenched behaviour that may become more serious over time and can affect the work behaviour of other employees as in ‘monkey see – monkey do’.

To deal with underperformance, supervisors need training and support of senior management and the ability to deal with issues at a local level rather than turn them over to persons who may be unfamiliar with the operating environment. 

Many issues of underperformance may simply be managed through a system of continuous feedback to employees by direct supervisors making regular and constructive comments on work matters at Toolbox meetings. It is not always necessary to have formal disciplinary procedures activated to deal with performance matters.

In the first instance, the employer should assess the seriousness of the problem and how long it has existed before determining the approach that will be required to have the underperforming employee brought up to standard. If a formal meeting is necessary, plan the meeting in detail so that the employee is able to clearly understand why the performance is a problem, how it affects the workplace and what will need to be done to correct the issue. Discussion should be about the issue and not about the person. After summarising the problem, endeavour to have the employee suggest a solution, as if the employee suggests a solution it is difficult for them to later back away from a lack of improvement.

Finally, the employee should be made aware of the effect of poor performance on the business and other employees and that their performance will necessarily be monitored for improvement over a period of time and that a formal warning may need to be issued.

In the event that improvement does not occur and the employment of the employee needs to be terminated, and to mitigate against an unfair dismissal claim, the employer should seek advice on an appropriate and fair termination of employment process. Employers should also ensure that for any meeting on performance or disciplinary action, the writing of a file note to record the substance and outcome of the meeting might very well be the record that is the one that assists your case in the event of a claim for unfair dismissal.

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