five steps to managing underperformance

When an employee is not meeting the expected level of performance, an employer or line manager needs to step in and address the issue. The following five steps can help you address underperformance before a problem becomes untenable.

step 1: identify the problem

It’s important to understand the key drivers of performance or underperformance within the workforce. It’s also important to correctly and specifically identify the problem.

step 2: assess and analyse the problem

An employer should determine:

  • how serious the problem is
  • how long the problem has existed, and
  • how wide the gap is between what is expected and what is being delivered.

Once the problem has been identified and assessed, the employer should organise a meeting with the employee to discuss the problem – let him or her know the purpose of the meeting in advance so they can adequately prepare. It is important to make it clear that performance management is not part of a formal disciplinary process.

step 3: meet with the employee to discuss the problem

It’s important the meeting takes place in private and in an environment that’s comfortable and non-threatening, away from distractions and interruptions. 

The employer should begin by holding a discussion with the employee to explain the problem in specific terms, so the employee should be able to clearly understand:

  • what the problem is
  • why it’s a problem
  • how it impacts on the workplace why there is a concern.

The employer should discuss the outcomes they wish to achieve from the meeting. The meeting should be an open forum, where the employee has an opportunity to have his or her point of view heard and considered. The employer should listen to the explanation of why the problem has occurred or to any other comments the employee makes. It may be useful to refer to recent positive things the employee has done to show their strengths are also recognised and appreciated.

Key points for employers to remember when holding the meeting are to:

  • talk about the issue and not the person
  • explore the reasons why there is an issue
  • clarify details
  • stay relaxed and encouraging
  • summarise to check your understanding of the situation.

When discussing shortfalls in any area, it’s important to check the employee:

  • is aware what is required of him/her
  • has been shown what is required
  • understands the gap between what is happening and what is required.

step 4: jointly devise a solution

An employee who has contributed to the solution will be more likely to accept and act on it. When working out a solution, the employer should:

  • explore ideas by asking open questions 
  • emphasise common ground
  • keep the discussion on track
  • focus on positive possibilities
  • offer assistance, such as further training, mentoring, flexible work practices or redefining roles and expectations.

A clear plan of action should be developed with the employee to implement the solution. This may be in the form of a performance agreement or action plan, which should:

  • reflect an understanding of performance expectations and what is to be achieved over the specified time period (performance improvement milestones)
  • clarify the role and responsibilities of the employee
  • include strategies for training and career development
  • include timeframes for improvement (these may vary depending on the issue and needs of the business, however it’s important to give an
  • employee adequate time to improve their performance)
  • reinforce the value and worth of the role being performed.

A date should be set for another meeting with the employee to review progress and discuss their performance against the agreed action plan. Keep a written record of all discussions relating to underperformance in case further action is required.

step 5: monitor performance

Monitor the employee’s performance and continue to provide feedback and encouragement. A meeting to review and discuss their performance should be held even if there is no longer an issue. This enables both parties to acknowledge the issue has been resolved. The employer should provide constructive feedback and work with the employee to ensure performance improvements are sustained.

More serious action may need to be taken if the employee’s performance does not improve including further counselling, issuing formal warnings and ultimately – if the issue cannot be resolved – termination of employment.

Do not expect improvement immediately or after one counselling session. An employee may need an adjustment period and probably some time to steadily improve. Employers must also be committed to the counselling process and reward and recognise the employee’s efforts to improve.

use plain language 

When devising a solution for underperformance, make sure it’s clear and easy to follow and does not rely on ‘performance management speak’. Use everyday language to avoid alienating both managers and employees. If terms such as ‘KPIs’ (key performance indicators) aren’t part of everyday language, don’t use them in performance discussions and agreements.

what to do if there is no improvement in performance

If the counselling doesn’t solve the problem, an employer may have to formally discipline the staff member. To do this, employers must have a disciplinary procedure in place and every employee should be familiar with this system and understand the steps involved. If an employer is facing a situation where an employee may be dismissed, it is essential that they can document and substantiate their actions.

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