When Performance Isn't What It Should Be

Posted in : HR Updates on 15 April 2015
Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting
Issues covered:

The principles of good performance management are familiar to most.  We frequently acknowledge the importance of setting clear objectives, of robust performance measures, of regular review and of timely and constructive feedback.  We know that line managers play a pivotal role in successfully managing individual and team performance and that the ability to truly motivate employees to give of their best, to go the extra mile even, is particularly important.     

We know this, and yet when it comes to facing the management of an employee who is significantly underperforming, managers are often stumped.   What should I do and what can I do, are the common questions? 

Whilst it is often the case that the best HR policies are no comparison for good, intuitive line management skills, in this particular case it is important that your procedures help managers to understand the different facets of managing underperformance and the possible routes to managing an improvement or an exit from the organisation, depending on what you are dealing with.  HR have a clear role to play here in establishing appropriate procedures and ensuring that managers are briefed and guided appropriately.

Fair Dismissal

Whilst we are acutely aware that dismissal should be the last consideration, in reality it is often the first, typically when a frustrated manager asks the HR manager how quickly this can happen in a case of poor performance.  The dismissal question does serve a useful purpose however, in that it reminds us that amongst the fair reasons for dismissal, a termination for poor performance can legally occur for both ‘capability’ related issues (where an employee is either too ill or lacks the skill / ability to perform to an acceptable standard) or for ‘misconduct’ (where an employee fails to meet acceptable standards, despite having the appropriate levels of skill and resource to do so). Check your policies, is this distinction clear?  Are managers confusing one with the other?  Do you deal with all underperformance as a misconduct issue? 

Ensure that you have policies which cover both Capability and Discipline in order to cover issues of skill shortfall / capability as well as behavioural misconduct.

Procedural Steps

The Labour Relations Agency updated their advice on managing poor performance in May 2012.  In it they advise that whilst the exact procedure for managing poor performance may differ, there are two important procedural steps:

Investigation - The employer should gather information about the decline in performance and then discuss this with the employee to establish if there is an underlying cause.

Review meetings – A dismissal after the first instance of underperformance is unlikely to be viewed as fair and reasonable.  A procedure should include a meeting which clearly outlines the required performance improvement (often referred to as the Performance Improvement Plan), goal setting and a subsequent review to assess achievement.

The number of review meetings that are appropriate will depend on the nature of the underperformance and whether any improvement is shown at review.  During a probationary period, a single review meeting may not be considered unreasonable.

Review meetings should set out in writing the reason for the review and all actions should be documented.

Whether the issue is one of capability or misconduct, it is important to meet with the employee, in order to establish an underlying cause.  The meeting should clearly state the required improvement in performance levels, be it in relation to behaviour or specific outputs such as punctuality and set target dates for improvement which are achievable and reasonable, given the explanation provided.  If support is requested, this should be provided where possible.

What are you dealing with?

The following questions are suggested by the LRA in investigating the nature of the underperformance and may help identify underlying causes;

  • How long has the employee been underperforming?
  • Has there been an increase in workload or a reduction in staffing levels?
  • What has the employee’s past performance level been like?
  • Have there been changes which have impacted, e.g. new technology.
  • Has there been a change in personal circumstances?
  • In there any interpersonal conflict in the workplace?

Is the employee showing signs of stress or illness?

In support of improvement

The high level reasons which are commonly linked to poor performance are indicated below, it should be noted that often a combination of reasons are at the root of the problem;

  • A lack of application (I can, but I won’t attitude)
  • A lack of skills capability (Inadequate training, resources, instruction or necessary ability)
  • A lack of physical capability (due to illness, injury or disability)

Aside from physical incapacity, employees are often unaware of the severity of their underperformance until it is outlined to them during a review meeting.  Often, a respectful meeting to discuss a required improvement is all that is required.  However, in order to demonstrate a reasonable and fair approach in the cases where dismissal for capability or misconduct is a real possibility, the employer is advised to take steps to help support improvements, these might include:

  • Adjustment of the role either as a motivating enhancement or variation or as a temporary reduction of duties as appropriate.
  • Provision of further training.
  • Provision of regular coaching.
  • Agreement to clearer instructions on requirements and more regular feedback.

Changes to the duties or working hours to make adjustments for a long term illness (including stress) or a disability.  Where poor performance is related directly to a disability then the employer should refer to the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act in making reasonable adjustments.  This does not preclude a dismissal for Capability where an employee has a disability as long as due process has been followed and adjustments have been properly considered and exhausted.

Stress is fast becoming the most frequent cause of workplace absence and is often directly related to poor performance.  A body of case law has built in recent years which underlines the employer’s duty of care on this issue.  It is important to consider causal issues such as workload or the way the work is managed before moving directly to corrective measures through a disciplinary procedure.

Whilst dealing with poor performance should be relatively infrequent, it is important that your policies are structured well enough to ensure that each case is dealt with fairly, consistently and with due process.  We have touched on some of the key points in relation to managing poor performance here and clearly each case will have its own particular considerations or complexities.

This article is correct at 19/10/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting

The main content of this article was provided by Angela Schettino. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 0450 or email Angela.Schettino@thinkpeople.co.uk

View all articles by Angela Schettino