Poor performance

An employee who is underperforming can have a detrimental effect on productivity, customer satisfaction, health and safety as well as causing friction with other employees. Dealing with poor performance is rarely straightforward and employers should not assume that the problem is always the fault of the employee. The risk of poor performance can be reduced by:

  • Recruiting the best qualified people for the job
  • Selecting for promotion on merit
  • Explaining the nature, demands and standards of the job at the outset
  • Thorough training
  • Supervision, assessment and regular appraisal.

The key to dealing with the problem of poor performance is to investigate and identify the causes. The true causes will determine the right course of action, which should be aimed at helping the individual concerned to bring his/her performance up to standard. It is possible to dismiss an employee for poor performance, provided that an appropriate and fair procedure has been followed. See the Discipline section for details on how to manage a fair procedure.

The disciplinary procedure provides for staged warnings. At every stage the employer should:

  • Remind the employee of the standards required
  • Specify how the employee’s work falls short
  • Provide the opportunity to improve
  • Allow time for the employee’s performance to be monitored and to make sure that the reason for the poor performance has been correctly identified.

Dealing with poor performance

There are many possible causes for poor performance, which cannot be blamed on the employee, for example:

  • Poor recruitment and training
  • Over promotion
  • Personal problems
  • The introduction of new technology
  • Harassment
  • Disability
  • A change in the business which requires higher standards.

Where your investigation reveals such causes, your initial response should be to offer help and support rather than disciplinary action. Where the job has changed, the new requirements and standards should be explained and the employee given additional training and time to adjust. Targets and timescales should be reasonable and realistic. Where an employee is found to have a disability, you should consider what adjustments could be made which will help him/her to improve.

Unsatisfactory performance during a probationary period

Contracts of employment often include an initial probationary period, of perhaps three or six months. The probationary period is a trial period, during which an employer can assess the performance of a new recruit before deciding on his/her suitability for permanent employment. In many contracts, the terms and conditions of employment that apply during the probationary period are different from those that apply afterwards. For example, the period of contractual notice to be given to (and by) the new employee may be shorter and the company’s discipline procedure may not apply. Although an employer is able to make these distinctions in relation to contractual entitlements, it should be remembered that a new employee’s statutory rights, for example to statutory holidays and statutory notice, begin on the first day of employment.

The recruitment of a new employee represents a major investment in time and resources. It therefore makes sense for an employer to support, assist and train the new employee in the early stages of employment, so that he/she can repay that investment by making a full contribution to the business as quickly as possible. The new employee’s performance should be monitored closely during the probationary period. If there are any problems, try to identify the causes quickly and look for solutions. Explain the issues to the employee and agree a course of action. Provide whatever help and additional training may be necessary. The employee should be left in no doubt as to where he/she is falling short and what help is available.

Employers usually carry out a formal review (appraisal) of the new employee’s performance at the end of the probationary period. If the employee has failed to reach the required standards, he/she should already be aware of the issues. The formal review should contain no surprises. In many cases, all the employee needs is more time to get up to speed. It may be possible to extend the probationary period, provide additional support and training and agree to a further review in a month’s time. However, where it is thought that the employee is unsuitable and no amount of additional time or training will help, dismissal may be the appropriate outcome.

Where an employee is to be dismissed following an unsatisfactory probationary period, employers are advised to follow the statutory dismissal and discipline procedure, as set out in the Employment Act 2002 (Dispute Resolution) Regulations 2004. See Discipline Section. Failure by the employer to follow the statutory procedure will make a dismissal on the grounds of performance automatically unfair, provided the employee has at least one year’s service. An employee who is in his/her probationary period may not have been employed for a year, although this might be the case if the probationary period has been extended for any reason. There is, however, no service qualification for bringing a claim of discrimination. If a dismissed employee is successful in a discrimination claim and the employer has failed to follow the statutory procedure, any compensation awarded by the tribunal may be increased by up to 50%.

When poor performance is a disciplinary matter

Sometimes poor performance is the result of the employees own misconduct or negligence. Carelessness, idleness, lack of motivation or failure to follow procedures and instructions all involve a measure of personal blame. In such cases it will be appropriate to follow the discipline procedure. For guidance on how to handle disciplinary issues, please see Discipline Section.