Managing poor-performing employees is a complex issue, often fraught with uncertainty and difficult conversations. What is a reasonable opportunity for improvement? When should a support person be offered? Should warnings be given, and if so, how many? All too often nothing is done until the employee’s poor performance reaches a critical point.

Managing poor-performing employees needn’t be so tricky. With some advance preparation and good documentation, your business will be in the best possible position to help a poor-performing employee improve their performance or, if all else fails, to move towards disciplinary action and possible dismissal. Below are some practical tips to help you effectively manage any poor-performing employees in your organisation.

Do

  • Act quickly to address poor performance – the longer poor performance continues, the harder it can be to address.
  • Plan ahead before performance discussions and know exactly what you are seeking to achieve through the discussion.
  • Identify the specific problem and consider whether there are any organisational factors affecting the employee’s performance. For example:
    • Is the employee clear on what their role is?
    • Is it a case of inadequate training or supervision?
    • Does the employee have access to the right tools?
    • Are there medical, personal or family factors involved?
    • Is there interpersonal conflict present that is contributing to the poor performance?
  • Make sure you have an understanding of the framework you are operating within, including the employment contract, position description, policies and procedures, and any applicable modern award or enterprise agreement, and ensure all requirements are followed or met.
  • Notify the employee in advance of all performance meetings, preferably in writing, and give them the opportunity to have a support person present.
  • Remain dispassionate and professional in performance discussions, and clearly communicate to the employee:
    • what the problem is, with specific examples;
    • why it is a problem;
    • how it impacts the workplace; and
    • what needs to be done by the employee to improve.
  • Work together with the employee to devise a solution and a reasonable timeframe for achieving it - you are more likely to achieve buy-in from an employee who has contributed to the solution.
  • Clearly identify the manner in which the business will monitor performance, including follow-up dates and goals, and always advise the employee (verbally and in writing) of what will happen if there is no improvement.
  • Monitor the employee’s progress at regular agreed intervals and continue to record examples of any ongoing issues.
  • Remember there are different levels of escalation for performance issues and the appropriate action will depend on the circumstances of each case. Options include counselling, training and written warnings, up to dismissal for serious cases. While a “three strikes” warning system is commonly considered mandatory in all cases, this is misconceived. Unless your contract enterprise agreement, policy or procedure provides for this, three warnings are not a legal requirement and may not be appropriate in the circumstances.
  • Take detailed notes or arrange for a note-taker during performance discussions, and always send a confirmation email to the employee confirming what was discussed and agreed on.
  • Consider training on dealing with poor performance and conducting difficult conversations. Managers are often promoted based on their broad skill set and value to the business, and may require assistance in developing these crucial skills.

Don’t

  • Wait until annual performance review time to raise important performance issues. Addressing issues as they arise can help stop the problem from getting worse, and avoids surprises during performance review time.
  • Wait for the “perfect time” to bring up performance issues - there will never be one. Addressing poor performance will involve challenging discussions, but those discussions are much easier when there is a single issue to deal with rather than a persistent pattern of behaviour.
  • Rely on your memory alone, even in relation to informal discussions. Document everything, in case it is needed down the track.