24 March 2014

How to deal with underperforming staff

An underperforming member of staff can affect profits and morale. How can you manage it to improve performance and avoid falling foul of employment law?

When you run a small business or a start-up, it is vital every member of staff pulls their weight.

If you end up hiring someone whose job performance is disappointing, this can have a major impact on staff morale, especially if you only have a few employees in total, as well as affecting the smooth running of your business. So what should you do if faced with this situation? Employment law is complex and dealing with an employee in the wrong manner could see you face an employment tribunal, which could be devastating for a small business or start-up.

Here are some tips to follow to address staff issues without falling foul of the law.

1. Identify the cause

The worst thing you can do is just pretend there isn’t a problem because you want to avoid confrontation or upset anyone. If you have identified a definite issue, you must take action or it could end up affecting the morale of the rest of your workforce - as well as the performance of your business. 

Get all the facts by talking to your employee and let them know that their performance is falling below your expectations. Find out if there is an underlying problem. For example, have they got issues in their personal life that are affecting their performance at work? Or perhaps they are finding certain tasks challenging and need more support?

By having a confidential chat with the person in question, you are giving them the chance to tell you about any extenuating circumstances and offering them support. Sometimes an employee doesn't have an issue, but they have just lost their motivation or are 'coasting' at work. In these cases, just having this initial conversation can be enough to spur them into action. 

2. Offer support

Once you've identified the cause, you need to discuss and agree a plan of action to improve their performance. This needs to clearly state what and how they need to improve - and when by. It should also state any support you agree to give. For example, if you find that the root cause is illness of a family member, you may be able to give them more flexibility in the hours they work or agree a temporary reduction. 

Or perhaps the issue is work-related. If their workload has increased and they don't feel able to keep on top of everything, you may need to look at what's really realistic and what support you can give them. Are you able to look at their responsibilities and see whether they can be given tasks more suited to their talents. 

By working with your staff to support them better in their job, there may be a way to turn them from someone you want to get rid of into a valued team member. 

3. Put everything in writing

Keep a detailed written record, to protect yourself in the future. Every time you have a meeting with your staff member, take notes and hold documented performance reviews. Keep a log of any issues so you can refer to it instead of talking vaguely about issues with performance.

Make sure you give the member of staff in question a copy of the reviews and outcomes from each meeting. This stops them from claiming that they weren't aware of your expectations at a later date, but also documents the support you've agreed to give them.

If the situation has deteriorated significantly, you may need to set out a written improvement plan. If you do, make sure you set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-framed) performance goals, so that you can monitor this over time. 

4. Monitor performance

Make sure you acknowledge when their performance is improving. Giving positive reinforcement can prevent the issue from recurring. 

Dismissing staff should be seen as a last resort and it is vital that you follow the correct procedures before letting anyone go. It helps if you have a disciplinary procedure already in place that all staff are given a copy of and that has been checked by a professional. Give staff formal warnings before taking any action and allow them to be accompanied by a companion or union representative if they wish when you hold disciplinary meetings.

If you need to deal with any potentially sensitive personnel issues, it can be worthwhile seeking professional legal advice. 

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