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Managing poor performance: 5 essential tips


While it may seem daunting and time-consuming, addressing poor performance is critical for building a high-performing team. Not only that, terminating an employee without proper consideration or due diligence can be a risky move for your business.

Recruiting, hiring, onboarding and training a new employee can be costly — and letting go of personnel is rarely easy for managers. It’s generally advisable to give employees plenty of time to improve while also providing the tools they need to grow. The goal is to get your employee to meet expectations instead of having to start over. That extra effort may prove fruitful, especially if the employee transforms their behavior.

With this in mind, here are some tips for managing unsatisfactory performance on your team.

1. Clearly communicate expectations

For every job, there should be a clear, detailed job description. If you don’t have anything formalized, you should start with outlining the functions and responsibilities of each role. You should also know what it takes for employees to be successful in each role, and it’s essential that your employees know this, too.

Don’t assume your employees can read your mind. Newly hired employees often have their own perspectives on expectations and standards, which don’t always align with what their new boss has in mind. Clearly defining each job makes it easier for them to understand what their new role requires of them – and to pinpoint and correct any problems.

Similarly, your progressive discipline policy should already be established and documented, outlining how discipline will take place should you need to go there. This helps ensure every issue is handled consistently and fairly.

2. Be a good coach

Rather than seeking to discipline them, aim to coach your employees, both new and existing, on a regular basis. This consists of giving informal feedback on what they’re doing right as well as what they need to improve. Think of a football coach: He gives praise for a good pass or a solid tackle, but he doesn’t hesitate to point out the missed catches and holes in the defense.

Without this feedback, you can’t expect your employees to know when they’re underperforming, until it’s too late and their poor performance has turned into a serious issue.

3. Write it down

Documentation is key. If you don’t write something down, it can be argued that it didn’t happen. Even informal conversations written in a notebook can be helpful and count toward documentation.

You’re probably thinking: Documentation takes time. Time you don’t have. That is understandable, however, writing things down will help should you have to defend any decisions down the road.

Here are some examples of important communications to collect:

  • Electronic communications
  • Phone conversations
  • One-on-one chats
  • Unprofessional or subpar behavior in group settings
  • Feedback and complaints from co-workers, managers or clients

4. Consider a performance improvement plan

Let’s say you’ve provided ongoing coaching, but you’re not seeing improvement, or you see some major concerns with performance that coaching has failed to improve. This would be a good time to develop a performance improvement plan (PIP).

Performance Improvement plans aren’t typically used for behavior issues or policy violations, but, rather, should be implemented to bridge a skills gap or point out where development is necessary. A PIP should articulate specifically what the problem areas are and give detailed goals for what the employee must do to correct these.

Here’s an example of a PIP:

“Sally Brown has been submitting reports with numerous grammatical, spelling and technical errors. As an effort to help her improve, within the next 30 days, Sally needs to complete Business Writing 101 as well as utilize grammar and spell-checking tools before submitting reports. Technical data should be reviewed by the engineering department. We will meet again next Tuesday to review progress.”

The timeline given for improvements should be reasonable. Some deficiencies are quicker to fix than others.

Finally, make sure your employee signs an acknowledgement form to confirm that they understand what’s expected of them.

5. Initiate Progressive Discipline

In situations where a policy is being violated, progressive discipline might be the better way to go. Use this option to address things such as attendance, communication and other behavioral issues. Progressive discipline generally starts with a verbal counseling, followed by written counseling, and then, depending on the situation, a final written warning or a suspension before moving to termination.

Here’s an example of how to word an attendance-focused counseling:

“Joe Smith has been late every Monday since the beginning of the year. Joe must arrive at work before the start of each work shift and clock in on or before his start time. He must promptly return from scheduled break times and work until the end of each shift. Improvement needs to be immediate, marked and sustained. Failure to improve punctuality issues and work all scheduled shifts in their entirety could result in discipline up to and including termination.”

If you conduct verbal counseling, send a follow-up email to your employee to document the conversation. The employee’s signature would not be required at this time, but it doesn’t hurt to obtain confirmation.

Written counseling is similar to the PIP in that it should clearly outline areas that the employee needs to correct. Again, in writing, detail specifically what you have observed that needs to improve and how this should be accomplished.

In addition, the written counseling document should make clear that improvement needs to be immediate marked and sustained.

Employees should sign this form after you’ve discussed it with them. This doesn’t mean they have to agree with what you’ve documented; their signature simply indicates that they’ve received the counseling statement.

What comes next

Hold regular follow-up meetings and don’t put them off. Make sure you document all conversations and have the employees sign to demonstrate they attended the meeting. Give them specific feedback on how they’re doing. If results are mixed, share with them what they’re doing right as well as what they’re doing wrong.

Now – and this part is important – if you don’t see improvement, or if the employee is still making similar errors, address them immediately. Don’t wait until your next follow-up meeting. Keep notes on what you’ve addressed and when. A coaching or counseling log may be helpful to capture these notes in one place.

Unfortunately, despite taking the steps above, termination may be necessary. In such a case, it’s best to follow a well-documented progressive discipline process first in order to minimize problems and demonstrate that you’ve tried to correct the situation.

Preparing for termination

If the only remaining option is to sever the relationship, having clear documentation outlining how you helped the underperforming employee improve will result in an employee who is less surprised by your decision.

Before terminating your employee, review all associated documentation. Also, contact your legal counsel or HR representative to ensure your case is supported, justified and sound. Confirm that you’re following state-specific wage and hour regulations. If you use employment contracts or noncompete or nonsolicitation agreements, you should ask your legal counsel to provide you with validity and enforcement guidance.

In releasing employees, honesty is the best policy. While your goal is not to make anyone feel bad, you also shouldn’t disguise a performance-based termination as a “layoff” or request the person to resign. Employees who are asked to resign may later claim they felt they were under duress to do so, possibly suggesting there was something improper involved.

For example, you could say, “John, as you know, we’ve talked a few times about your attendance, and we haven’t seen this improve as we would have liked. That said, we have made the decision to terminate your employment effective immediately.”

Summing it all up

Rushing into termination can have significant, and often unnecessary, repercussions for a business. By providing employees with opportunities to improve their performance through clear communication, feedback, coaching and PIPs or progressive discipline, you can have peace of mind knowing you’ve done everything in your power to correct the situation. And with proper documentation, you can reduce exposing your business to potential risks.

For more advice on avoiding common HR errors, download our free e-book, 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.