It's the call that many HR professionals dread: a manager reporting that enough is enough, and the underperformer in their team has got to go. You check the employee's personnel file and find no prior warnings and three years of glowing appraisals. This may be hauntingly familiar for many in the profession.
Underperformance often flies under the radar, unaddressed for prolonged periods until near breaking point – by which time it is too early to fairly dismiss and often too late to repair faith in the employee's ability to do the job.
So how can employers avoid getting here, and what are some of the top tips for employers managing the process?
It may seem obvious, but the importance of truly understanding what the problem is cannot be underestimated. Sometimes there is a fine line between poor performance and those matters more properly characterised as misconduct. Perhaps oversimplifying slightly, is it a case of something the employee "can't do" (usually poor performance) or "won't do" (typically misconduct)?
Identifying the problem is rarely a conclusion that can be reached in isolation. In most cases, the issue which comes to light is often the outward effect of an underlying problem. Getting to the root cause will help to ensure that the right support can be provided and the right targets can be set.
Understanding the issues will also inform the investigations that will need to be carried out as a precursor to any formal action.
It can be daunting for managers to confront employees, and many may prefer to avoid a time consuming performance management process.
The problem is that these issues rarely go away on their own. Addressing performance issues as soon as they arise can have positive effects, both practically and legally. For example:
Having an accurate written record of concerns of underperformance can be crucial. Not only will this help to substantiate often contested areas of concern, but clear written records will also help to demonstrate that where more formal steps may be necessary, those issues have not come out of the blue.
No one would want to encourage managers to take note of any and every mistake an employee may make, but regular reviews followed up with a note on the action points (for both employee and manager) can be a simple and effective way of tracking performance concerns.
In a more formal setting, appraisals can be a useful way of facilitating a discussion about performance. Some may see appraisals as a 'box ticking' exercise, but it is vital that the appraisal process is reflective of what is actually happening. Employees faced with allegations of underperformance will almost always refer back to prior appraisals and ask: if it was so bad, why was it not raised before? This immediately puts an employer on the back foot.
Whilst always better to address issues as they arise, an annual appraisal process may be the only time employee and manager discuss performance and progress and so it is an opportunity not to be missed.
People management is a skill. Often undervalued, and rarely ever-present, it can be the difference between a happy team and a dysfunctional one.
Managers do not tend to start with all the skills they need to address what are often highly emotional and complex issues that underlie performance concerns. Empowering managers with the skills and confidence to properly manage underperformance can have a significant value. Ensuring managers are properly trained, and understand when to discuss their concerns with HR is an integral part of this.
In most cases concerns about performance can be addressed and redressed quickly and simply. However there are those more challenging cases where poor performance, and the management of the process, is more longstanding and complex.
It is important to be alive to underlying issues which may sit beneath underperformance. Is an employee's performance sub-par because of ill-treatment by other colleagues? Is the employee experiencing problems outside of work? Or is poor performance one manifestation of an underlying health issue or disability? Knowing what this may be will ensure that the process which is followed is adapted accordingly.
Be aware too of the hurdles that often arise in managing the procedure itself. Grievances and sickness absence, genuine or otherwise, are common features of performance management exercises. Avoiding assumptions is important, as each situation will need to be considered carefully and genuinely on a case by case basis.
Even where an employee does not have two years' service (and as a result does not yet have the legal right not to be unfairly dismissed) prudent employers should take steps to keep thorough written records, train their managers and be mindful of underlying concerns that could be at the root of an employee's underperformance. Acting promptly to address any performance-related issues and following a carefully managed process can save significant costs in the long-term (both from a financial and management time perspective) by strengthening an employer's legal position and minimising the risk of claims.