How to handle a poor performing employee

Being a line manager is hard!

All too often we hear from leaders that they wish their people would just do what they needed them to without any problems. But people are tricky and that’s why you are in the wonderful position of being their line manager – helping them to be the very best that they can be and to make sure your customers are getting the very best service – whether that’s to external customers, or other internal departments within the business.

Being a leader is all well and good when performance is good, but when a team member isn’t performing, it can’t be ignored. The longer you leave it, the worse the situation will become – it will not magically get better, so don’t simply hope it will and put it to the bottom of your list.

Often leaders make the assumption that an underperforming team member will need to leave the business, but that isn’t always the case; frequently, addressing performance issues results in a better performing and more engaged (aka happier) employee. And getting the best out of your people, is what being a leader is all about.

As HR consultants we regularly help businesses with issues like these, so here are our top tips for managing an underperforming employee:

Time is of the essence

It’s tempting to kick things down the road when there’s a problem – no one likes having those difficult conversations, but the longer you leave it, the worse the situation will get for customers, for colleagues, and for the individual concerned – it’s very rare that someone doesn’t realise they’re not performing well. So be brave and tackle the situation sooner rather than later.

Have a clear policy in place

Leading people is all about clarity – people like certainty and to know what is expected of them and dealing with performance issues is no different. So, make sure you have a robust process to follow, with a policy to guide you, to ensure you’re being fair and consistent in all cases. This will have the added benefit of ensuring your employee understands the process that will be followed and the potential consequences if their performance doesn’t improve.

There are certain people policies that an employer is required to have by law and this includes a disciplinary policy, but we would also advise that you have a capability policy in place also.

Be open and honest

When you sit down with your team member, make sure you’re fully prepared for the discussion – don’t have it on the fly, performance conversations aren’t easy so prep will make it run a lot more smoothly so:

• Plan out what you want to talk about – why are you dissatisfied with their performance?
• Bring recent, clear examples of behaviour/work that has been sub-standard.
• Ask open questions, and then listen to what your employee has to say. Why is their performance not up to standard from their perspective? What will help them to improve?
• Show compassion – no one wants to be underperforming at work; perhaps there are personal issues that are affecting work so don’t be afraid to ask if there’s anything going on outside of work that might be impacting them.
• Agree a way forward – ensure they understand what needs to change and what ‘good’ looks like.
• Agree when you will next get together to review progress – allow enough time for them to demonstrate they can do as needed, but not so long that the conversation is forgotten.
• Then, follow it up in an email, and note what has been agreed upon, asking them to let you know if they are unsure what is expected.

Make sure you follow up!

Whether your team member shows the required improvement, or not, it’s important that you get back together with them to discuss their progress.

You’ll need to either give them praise that they’ve taken your feedback on board and acted accordingly – a big pat on the back is needed to ensure they continue on this path.

Or, you need to discuss the fact the necessary improvement is still lacking, and have a further conversation about why this is. If you’re still unhappy with the performance, you may need to consider starting a formal performance improvement process (PIP).

Getting formal

Most of the time, people take on board their boss’ feedback and act accordingly. Sometimes, however, a more formal process is needed. For this, you need to put in place formal performance objectives, along with timeframes for achievement, which you review and if not achieved, a warning is issued.

This can be tricky, so it’s a good idea to get advice and support from an HR professional who can guide you through the process. Crucially, you need to ensure you follow your own internal policies (disciplinary or capability, whichever is relevant) and also take into account the ACAS guidance. If you don’t then you may come up against issues should the employee raise a grievance, or make a claim at an employment tribunal.

Avoiding performance issues

Ultimately, leadership is all about communication, so to avoid performance issues altogether, make talking to your team members, and reviewing their performance a priority in your weekly tasks – that will mean that any issues will be picked up quickly before they become a big problem.

And of course, if you need help with any performance issues, get in touch – as a leader you can’t be expected to have all the expertise, all of the time and that is where we can help.