Five-part plan for managing problem employee work performance

Do all your employees meet all of your management standards most of the time?  If the answer is "no", then there's work to do or your business will simply go on leaking money.  Poor work performance is a far more common complaint than misconduct.  Kate Russell, known as the UK's HR Headmistess, advises how to overcome this all too common issue.

An ability to identify and tackle poor work performance in an effective, timely fashion is an essential management skill. Failure is costly. Take BP's performance in April 2010. BP's attempts to resolve the enormous oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig was clearly viewed by the Obama administration as very poor.  The costs of the clean-up operation and of the funds put aside for future losses stemming from the spill have been put at billions.

The essence of being a manager is getting work done effectively through your team. It can be a tough job!

The key components of managing performance successfully are:

  • setting and communicating standards
  • regular feedback
  • correction where needed.

Unfortunately, where there is a problem it doesn't usually go away by itself.

Where you have a poor work performance issue, try to identify the cause of the problem. Managers can be tempted to assume that performance problems arise because of an employee's carelessness or lack of effort; some employees will be guilty of this, but it's not automatically the cause.

Once you have isolated the root cause of the unsatisfactory performance, the solution to the problem should then become apparent. If you can remove or reduce the cause of the problem, the employee's performance is likely to improve.

Secondly, try to nip problems in the bud.


Gerry couldn't carry out his duties properly and was causing serious production problems. The employer came to me wanting to sack Gerry.  In expressing his considerable frustration, he said: "He's always been like this; slow to learn and loses the skills he does manage to gain quickly."  I asked how long Gerry had been working there, expecting the employer to say something like, "About six months."  I was amazed when the reply was "15 years - and he's always been bloody useless…!"

The third stage in the process is to create a performance improvement plan (PIP).  Agree and set down precise performance targets which are capable of being measured.

  • Agree a process to keep both of you informed of progress and diarise follow-ups.
  • If the employee needs any training, specify that in the PIP.
  • Build in a date for an interim performance evaluation to assess the employee's progress.
  • Include the employee's suggestions in the PIP.
  • List the positive outcomes of successfully completing the performance improvement plan along with the negative consequences of failing to meet performance criteria.
  • Ask the employee to date and sign the PIP, acknowledging that he has read and understands its requirements.
  • Note that the process of encouraging the employee to improve his performance starts at the informal stage. If it becomes necessary to escalate to the formal process, the PIP will continue to run in parallel with any formal sanctions.

The fourth element is to monitor progress and provide regular feedback.  Review at weekly intervals, so you keep track of progress. If the situation picks up and the employee starts to perform better, this will be encouraging for both of you. Give accurate and targeted feedback. Try to focus on the positive as this will increase motivation and performance.

Lastly, give enough time for the employee to improve; this should be at least one to three months, but it does depend on the circumstances. If in doubt give more time rather than less.

If the employee's performance does not improve after the informal approach you can move to the formal process. The efforts to guide your employee to a raised standard of performance would continue in parallel with any formal sanctions.

Kate Russell is one of the UK's foremost employment and HR experts, public speaker and author who is known as the HR headmistress.

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