The weakest link: managing underperforming employees

Poor staff performance is a major headache for employers, both legally and ethically.

Whether they’re failing to hit target or they’ve simply lost interest in the role, any drop in employee performance levels will ultimately affect your bottom line.

It’s crucial that you tackle workplace issues head on. After all, you’re only as strong as your weakest member.

Unfortunately, managing poor performance takes time, and there are many risks if you don’t follow best practice.

Some employers choose to cut corners, act impulsively and fire employees on the spot. Yet with one in eight businesses facing a potentially crippling employment tribunal claim this year, ignoring your legal obligations just isn’t worth the risk.

Before flashing an employee the red card, it’s vital to be able to demonstrate that you have explored all other avenues in order to boost performance.

Step one: making your concerns known

Sitting down with the employee in an informal setting enables you to communicate your concerns, and identify the reasons behind their poor performance.

Don’t go in with all guns blazing. The individual may not have received adequate training, or may be unclear as to what is expected of them. They may even be experiencing personal problems at home.

Once your areas of concerns have been identified and communicated, it may be wise to implement a performance improvement plan (PIP). This helps to establish clear performance targets and objectives, including deadlines.

You should also include details of the likely consequences should the employee be unable to demonstrate an improvement in performance levels.

Don’t forget to set out areas in which you can support the employee through additional training and development.

Once the PIP period comes to an end, schedule a review meeting to discuss progress.

If all targets have been achieved and you are satisfied with the employee’s performance, no further action needs to be taken.

If, however, the employee failed to meet their objectives then a firmer approach may well be needed.

Step two: escalation

Should the employee’s performance remain problematic, it’s crucial that the course of action you follow is both professional and fair. Depending upon the nature of the case, a typical disciplinary sequence includes:

  1. Verbal warning
  2. Written warning
  3. Final written warning
  4. Dismissal

Dismissal should only be used as a last resort, when all other options have been exhausted.

During formal meetings, do remember that an employee has the right to be accompanied by a colleague or union representative.

Retain detailed records

It’s vital that you keep written evidence of all meetings and discussions that take place with the employee. A letter should be sent to the employee inviting them to each meeting with a further follow up letter after every meeting, to outline the outcome. Not only will this improve communication and increase the chances of an amicable outcome, it can also prove a vital defence tool should the employee later claim they were unfairly dismissed.

HR policies and procedures

Being pro-active by ensuring you have clear disciplinary and performance management procedures in place will make handling an underperforming employee more straightforward.