Crash Course: Seven ways to manage poor performance

By on August 14, 2013

Under-performance is tricky to deal with, so it often gets ignored. Here are seven ways to avoid that says Alexander Garrett. 

At GE, Jack Welch insisted that his managers sack the bottom 10% of their people every year. A bit extreme, but you have a feeling that there’s endemic poor performance in your organisation that isn’t being dealt with. So what should you do?

Draw up a policy. It’s a good idea to have a policy on performance management, so people know what happens if they don’t shape up, says Michael Burd, partner at lawyers Lewis Silkin. ‘It used to be considered part of discipline, but now most firms have a separate policy or a hybrid of the two.’

Face up to it. In the UK, employers don’t do performance management well because managers don’t like confrontation, says Burd. ‘Often they’ll let it go for 18 months or more and even give a decent appraisal, because they don’t want to confront the employee. A percentage of cases could be remedied if they were addressed proactively at an early stage.’ And failing to address poor performance undermines the engagement of your other team members, notes Chris Bones, dean of Henley Business School.

Be clear. ‘You can’t manage poor performance through appraisals,’ says Bones. ‘These are a recording mechanism. People can only perform if you give them clear expectations and they understand what good looks like and feels like.’ You should be managing performance every time you ask someone to do something, whether that’s daily or weekly, not leaving it to periodic review.

Get one-on-one. When you’ve identified underperformance, the first step is to meet the individual involved and find out why. ‘You need to establish whether they have understood what was expected, and if they think they have the requisite skills,’ says Bones. It’s an opportunity for the employee to find a solution. You should also look for causes such as health or personal problems.

Focus on the facts. ‘Try to concentrate on observable behaviour rather than making personal comments like “your heart’s not in it any more”,’ says consultant Helen West. ‘The more personal your comments, the more emotive it becomes and the more likely to lead to conflict.’

Consider remedial action. Training and coaching may help the individual to improve their performance; clearer communication from you might also help. You might consider moving the employee to a more suitable role, but be careful. ‘That would amount to a change of contract,’ says Burd, and could be grounds for arguing constructive dismissal, so you must be able to defend your action.

Put it on the line. If underperformance is more than a blip, and there’s no other remedy, issue an ultimatum. ‘Set a clear target and a time-scale and let them know that if this is not met, you’ll have to give notice of dismissal,’ says Bones. Consult your HR department or employment lawyers to make sure you are following procedure.

Do say: ‘The work you produced didn’t meet expectations on the following counts … ‘

Don’t say: ‘This report is … uh … fine. Let’s discuss it at your appraisal next year.’

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