Managing poor performance

A manager’s guide to handling poor performance

One of the biggest challenges for most employers is handling underperforming staff.  Tolerating poor performance not only means that the business is (over) paying for work and potentially failing to deliver what its customers and clients expect, it also has an impact on the morale of the employees that are performing well – and often picking up the slack. However, taking steps to manage poor performance often proves challenging. In the first instance it is not the responsibility of Human Resources, but that of the line manager, who should be picking up day to day issues as they arise; all too often problems which could be easily resolved are allowed to fester and become major issues. Having performance conversations is often easier said than done, given that, generally, avoiding conflict and difficult decisions is a natural human instinct!

For managers, there are a series of bear traps to be avoided when handling poor performance.  You can dismiss underperforming staff, but you must investigate the performance and make decisions based on facts and data. By following simple procedures you can spare yourself any costly fallout.

As employees with less than two years’ continuous employment have no right to bring an unfair dismissal claim (absent discrimination or whistleblowing) the probation period is the first, and best, opportunity to acknowledge initial signs of poor performance. Many managers miss this opportunity by treating the probation period as a minimum service test, rather than a genuine hurdle to be cleared to have an on-going job. The probation period is there for the protection of the business and the manager needs to make sure that the person employed is delivering what they promised to deliver in their interview. There should be a review at the end of each probation period when the business makes a proactive decision: whether it is to (i) confirm the employee has passed the probationary period, (ii) dismiss the employee, or (iii) extend the probation preview. This decision needs to be fed back to the employee, preferably by the manager accompanied by a member of HR to avoid a situation where it is the manager’s word against that of the employee.

If the employee has more than two years’ continuous employment, for a performance related dismissal to be lawful it is critical that you give the employee the chance to improve, considering training and support where appropriate. You cannot set up an employee to fail, so follow the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Time scaled) guide to setting objectives. Clearly set out the standard you expect and give the employee a defined time frame in which to meet this.  The standard is a matter for the business – it is for employers to set the standards that employees must meet.  Generally, three to six months is a reasonable amount of time within which you could expect to see an improvement. ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) recommends a three stage process: (i) an initial meeting where targets are set, (ii) a second meeting which is the final warning and (iii) the dismissal.

The employee has a right to appeal against a dismissal, so make sure that their dismissal was dealt with professionally, and that you can support this with the relevant paper work. Whilst it is never possible to guarantee that employees will not pursue legal claims, following this process will give employers the best chance of dissuading and, if necessary, defending such claims.

1 Response

  1. Alex Cartwright Obas

    There is a presumption here that both parties will be acting in a fair and considerate manner however evidence suggests that employers can be far more contrived and calculating. Often capability issues arise when an employee is seen as a problem. The long two year qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims has seen an increase in conflict arising between 2-5 years after employment. There is also evidence that employees will harbour grievances during the qualifying period.