How to manage poor performance

Published on March 2, 2021 by Gemma Dale
How to manage poor performance

How to manage poor performance

Learn how to manage poor performance and navigate informal and formal approaches to performance management with this guide from HR Director and author Gemma Dale.

Managing poor work performance isn’t always an easy task, but it is an important one to get right. Every people manager will at some point in their career have to have a difficult conversation about poor performance or deliver negative feedback in a performance review meeting.

The reasons for poor performance

There’s no single reason why someone performs poorly at work. It may result from poor training or development, insufficient management support or even a failure of the recruitment process. Sometimes the employee in question simply isn’t putting in the required effort, or perhaps they are but even with their best endeavours they just cannot meet the standards required. Poor performance may relate to job-related factors or personal issues. It may or may not be in the control of the employee.

But just what should a manager do when they observe poor performance in the workplace?

Talking to an employee about poor performance

Discussing poor performance with employee

First and perhaps most importantly of all, talk to the employee promptly. This conversation can be an informal one to begin with. Some managers will put off a conversation like this one – it is after all uncomfortable for all concerned.

It might be preferable to hope the situation will resolve itself, but this is rarely the case. The employee may be completely unaware that they are not meeting objectives or the necessary performance standards. Don’t wait for a formal performance review or appraisal – schedule a meeting as soon as possible.

Informal discussions around performance

In these informal discussions, the employee must be told where they are going wrong, be set clear objectives and goals for improvement, and given a timescale in which to do so. A follow up meeting should always be scheduled and the employee made aware of what might happen next if performance does not improve.

Finally, this informal performance conversation should include a discussion with the individual about any support that they need to make the necessary improvement. This could include formal training, the provision of a mentor, or just a little extra guidance and help.

Formal performance management

Formal performance management

Hopefully, these informal conversations will result in the desired performance improvement. Where it does not, the next step is to begin a process for formal performance management. If there have been honest and timely conversations at the initial informal stage, then this won’t be a surprise to the employee. This doesn’t however mean that it will be a straightforward process. No one likes to hear that they aren’t performing and reactions may vary from denial that there is an issue to fear or even blaming others.

Having a performance management policy

Every organisation should have a formal policy outlining their approach to managing poor performance. Often called a Capability Policy, this should set out the process that will be followed for performance meetings and any sanctions, such as warnings, that might apply. Normally the procedure will include a series of warnings, from a verbal or first warning to a formal warning and then even dismissal in more serious cases.

Learn how performance management software can help you manage the performance process more effectively and document important meetings and outcomes.

performance management system

Following a formal process

During formal performance meetings managers should:

  • Provide specific examples of poor performance
  • Seek the views of the employee
  • Identify if there are any underlying reasons for the poor performance – for example, these could be personal issues outside work, or lack of training on a specific process
  • Set out the impact of the poor performance on the company and why it is important to improve
  • Set very clear performance improvement goals for the future
  • Confirm a timescale for review

The manager will also have to decide whether or not to issue a formal warning for the poor performance. Normally this will begin with a first stage or verbal warning. If performance does not improve after a warning has been issued, the formal process should continue and this may result in further formal warnings.

Dismissal for poor performance

From time to time, no matter what support is available or even how hard an employee tries to improve, there is no alternative but to consider dismissing the employee for poor performance. Dismissal should however always be a last resort after every other alternative has been exhausted and only after the proper process has been followed.

Preventing poor performance

Preventing poor performance

Of course, it is a better outcome for everyone if formal performance management processes like these are never needed at all. They are time-consuming and can damage the relationship between the manager and the employee. Whilst sometimes formal processes are inevitable, there is much that can be done to avoid the need for them arising at all.

Regular dialogue and feedback about performance, the setting of clear and measurable objectives and goals, provision of learning and development, and high quality people management can all support employees in delivering the performance required of them. Then no one needs to have a difficult conversation about performance – which is preferable for everyone concerned.

Read more from the myhrtoolkit blog

Introducing performance management when your workforce is remote

Are employers obliged to give an employee appraisal?

Picture of Gemma Dale

Written by Gemma Dale

Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics. Gemma is the co-author of the book 'Flexible Working' published by Kogan Page in 2020. She is also a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University and runs her own business, The Work Consultancy.

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