There are many factors that may lead to an employee underperforming. Some of these are fairly simple to address, such as employees not being aware of the goals or standards of the workplace. Others are much more serious and may be very difficult to broach, such as workplace bullying, or personal issues like grief, substance abuse, or mental health issues.
But what exactly is ‘underperformance’?
The Fair Work Ombudsman defines the four kinds of underperformance as:
- unsatisfactory work performance; a failure to perform the duties of the position to the standard required
- lack of compliance with workplace policies, rules, or procedures
- unacceptable behaviour in the workplace, and
- disruptive or negative behaviour that affects co-workers
When issues concerning underperformance begin to arise, it’s important to address them promptly – but also sensitively – lest they lead to outcomes that may affect other employees or the business at large.
In most cases, employees won’t be aware of their poor performance, and so are unlikely to rectify the issue without intervention from you, their principal.
The process of addressing issues of underperformance is difficult and confronting for employer and employee alike, but it is necessary. As such, it’s important to know how best to approach the situation.
Identify the issue
Before you can hope to address and resolve the issue, you first need a solid understanding of what it is.
Solving the problem of ‘not enough sales’ is a lot more difficult than solving the problem of ‘apathy and disengagement resulting in not enough sales.’
Apathy and laziness are common performance issues, but there are many others too, such as:
- not following directions or performing tasks to the required standard
- not understanding job requirements or directions
- cynical and negative opinions voiced in the work environment
- regularly absent without cause or explanation
Having a solid understanding of the nature of underperformance is paramount to being able to address it.
Analyse and assess the issue
Once the problem is identified, it’s important to get an idea of how severe it is. This also includes how long the problem has persisted, and how dramatic the underperformance is.
Once you’ve assessed the issue and can pinpoint when the problem started, how serious it is, and how large the gap is between where the employee’s performance is and where it should be, it’s time to broach the issue in a meeting.
Discussing the issue
Be sure to let the employee know the nature of the meeting ahead of time so they have time to prepare.
It’s best to reduce the confrontational feeling of the meeting as much as possible. This can be done by conducting the meeting in a private, comfortable, non-threatening environment. The ‘boss’ office’ can be an intimidating locale for such a meeting, so ideally hold the discussion in an empty meeting room, or some other neutral place.
Once in the meeting, explain the issue in clear, specific terms. The key ideas to get across are:
- what the problem is
- why it’s a problem, and
- what effect it has on the workplace
After that, you should discuss your desired outcome. But before you delve in, it’s a good idea to ask your employee if they’re going through anything in their personal life that might be impacting their work. This opens the door to a transparent conversation your employee might have been too uncomfortable to broach.
The point is to maintain an open discussion wherein the employee has every opportunity to have their point of view and opinions heard and taken into consideration.
You can gain a lot of insight into the nature of the issue by simply listening to what your employee has to say.
Always keep in mind that the point of the meeting is not to reprimand and scold the employee. Be sure to focus on the issue, not the person. Clarify details, explore the reasons for the issue, and above all, stay relaxed and encouraging.
Resolving the issue
The proposed solution should be devised by you and your employee alike. As Fair Work states, an employee will be more willing to accept and act on the devised solution if they’ve contributed to it.
When planning the solution, be sure to ask lots of questions, emphasise any common ground, focus on positive outcomes, and offer any necessary assistance, such as additional training or redefined roles and expectations.
It’s then imperative to form a clear plan of action which includes the key parts of your discussion. It should explain the issue and its causes, and specific steps to be taken to rectify the issue. This should include any additional assistance required, as well as clearly outlined timeframes for issue resolution.
Fair Work suggests sticking to everyday language in the plan of action to avoid alienating employees or risking misunderstandings.
Laying out the plan of action does not mean the issue is resolved. Over the next days, weeks, months, or even years, you should continue providing feedback and encouragement to the employee – as well as listening to any of their thoughts and concerns.
Even if the issue is resolved, a short meeting is still a good idea if only to acknowledge the fact that there is no longer a problem.
You may feel it necessary to outline a plan to ensure that the heightened level of performance is maintained. In this case, as before, have the employee share their opinions and contribute to the plan of action.
The goal of performance management is to return an employee’s performance to expected levels, and ultimately avoid having to terminate their employment.
In doing so, overall staff turnover will be reduced. Performance management may seem a more arduous option than employment termination, but you shouldn’t underestimate the costs of hiring and training new employees.
High staff turnover is also very disruptive, and may create a stressful or tumultuous workplace wherein employees struggle to feel assured and stable in their position.
Spending the time to manage underperformance will show your staff that your interests lie in building a strong, well-functioning team.
The Fair Work Ombudsman provides a best practice guide for managing underperformance here: https://www.fairwork.gov.au/ArticleDocuments/711/Managing-underperformance-best-practice-guide.pdf.aspx
Fair Work also lists some common performance issues, their potential causes, and some actions to be taken: https://www.fairwork.gov.au/how-we-will-help/templates-and-guides/best-practice-guides/managing-underperformance#commonissues
For any questions regarding performance management or termination of employment, visit Fair Work’s Ending employment page, or call the Infoline on 13 13 94.