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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Talking about performance

Why do some employees fail to perform, and what can an employer do to get things back on track? Lara Hellier has some answers.

We have the conversation constantly with our clients about poor performance—it’s the non-sexy part of HR. Performance concerns can take many different forms from ongoing, low-lying behaviours such as poor work ethic, scraping by with the bare minimum of effort and unacceptable timekeeping, through to serious breaches of work practices or consistently failing to meet deadlines that place more immediate and serious risk on your business.

Performance can also be measured not only by what the employee is to achieve in their role, but also how they meet those targets. Are their behaviours in line with the values of your organisations? Do they “toxify” the workplace with constant negativity or targeting colleagues? It only takes one person to decrease morale or damage your employment brand.

Our world is becoming extremely complex—from generational changes and cost of living pressures and expectations to environmental and technology changes. As business leaders, we need to become aware of the changes that are happening all around us. We need to embrace, evolve, adapt, be open and empathetic when we are dealing with our people, especially when it comes to performance concerns.

External pressures are a common cause of poor performance—for example, family, relationships, health, change of circumstances—and it is easy to attribute failures to “stuff going on at home”. However, there are plenty of internal factors that contribute to a person’s performance that we should consider also, such as engagement, understanding how their role contributes to organisational success, feeling undervalued or conflict within the workplace.

We all know poor performance has an impact on us as leaders and managers; however, it has a flow-on effect where it also affects productivity, engagement, morale, retention, culture, internal and external communication and service levels within the business and with external stakeholders.


Whatever the performance may look like, it’s about understanding how it affects you, your team, your customers and the business as a whole. Just one poor performance issue can have an impact on business and affect morale. Those awesome team members you have invested in may resign, you will receive complaints from customers, you may not hit your budgets due to productivity being down—the list goes on and on.

We understand dealing with poor performers is tough, it takes you away from what you are great at. You hope it is a distraction you can work around, that your team member will improve if you just give them one more chance. It’s hard to address the toxic member of your team, the one who is always late, the one that has Mondays off, the overly chatty team member who brings in the baking, the one who is a constant moaner-groaner and you know all about their personal life too!

So why is this team member affecting you and all the areas of your business? You need to understand that you are allowing this to happen by not addressing it—and it’s going to continue to fester and grow until you do something about it. Stop making excuses and start talking about performance. It can be a positive conversation, a good first step and a conversation you need to have. You may even find the employee has become a little lost in their role over time and welcomes the introduction of some targets and guidance.

Think about how you are going to approach the person and put an action plan in place. First of all, ascertain the type of performance concerns. Does it relate to the quality or quantity of work or is it a breach of your policies? Make sure you have provided the person with the right tools to do the job to the required standard. Ensure you have provided a position/job description and shared your expectations of their role.

Review your performance model and confirm that you are following the process you have communicated to the team through your handbooks, policies or agreements. Make sure these policies are adaptable and flexible—we are dealing with individuals so there is no “one size fits all” solution.

Once you are confident that they should be performing to your expectations, you should be ready to have a conversation with your team member about their poor performance. So go on, arrange that performance catch up, but remember, your communication from this point is vital.

At the initial performance catch up, check in to see how the person is doing and clearly communicate your concerns. This is a time where you question, actively listen and find out what is going on for the poor performance to be occurring. Explain to your team member how their performance is affecting the business and work out a plan to move forward to improve and remove the performance concerns.

Use positive language and watch the person’s body language. Make sure your communication is positive, encouraging and empathetic if required. Be mindful that you have not pre-determined your outcome prior to any discussion.

In the catch up, set clear and achievabale objectives for the person to accomplish. Get agreement from them and ensure they understand and have been offered any additional training or support required to meet the standard you are seeking. Organise ways to follow up—decide how frequently you will check in, and if this will be in person or by email. Either way, this needs to happen.

Following the catch up, create a file note documenting the meeting with the objectives you discussed and how you are going to follow up. In more serious cases, to avoid any confusion it is recommended that you formalise the objectives in a document you both sign. This gives more value to the goals and greater accountability on the employee to address the issues.

It is important to keep the momentum and stick to your scheduled catch-ups. Missing deadlines or persistently delaying meetings sends the message that it’s not that big of a deal.


What happens if this performance does not improve? Make sure you have followed up your initial performance catch-up with feedback on the person’s performance and the objectives you set. At your next follow-up, if nothing has changed, clearly communicate that you are concerned that performance is not improving and decide on your next step.

You are now at a stage where you need to commence a formal performance improvement plan, or possible disciplinary action, depending on what the performance concerns are.

What happens if it all goes horribly wrong? Don’t be afraid to adjourn your catch-up and seek advice from an HR specialist or employment lawyer as you need to be confident and comfortable with your next step, or to discuss an alternative option.

At times, poor performance could escalate to more serious concerns, which is when we take a more formal approach. And at times the serious concerns are forced upon us in a surprising manner and we are required to address them appropriately.

The intention with any performance concern is to communicate with your team member, set goals, and provide support—this includes external support from providers including EAP, budgeting advice, etc. Some great resources are available to you to provide to your team depending on the circumstances. Check out and for some helpful resources.

Along the way, make sure you review your onboarding process, buddy system, internal communication model, your structure and your performance management process. Make sure it aligns with your business values and how you want to approach performance concerns.

I also encourage you to consider throwing out your annual performance reviews. The new generation coming into our workplaces is not motivated by the old school annual review system. Rather, they appreciate frequent feedback, regular goals, communication sessions and coffee chats.

If you are not in a position to throw out those annual reviews, then consider making a change to implement shorter quarterly reviews which enable relevant objectives and positive outcomes. More frequent consultations will make for more open and honest communication and build reciprocal trust as you discuss and develop the role.

Often rulings for unjustified dismissal related to performance are found to be in favour of the employee due to mediocre feedback during performance reviews, instead of genuine, honest and transparent conversations. Even if you do not currently have performance concerns in your business, I encourage you to be pro-active and make sure you have communication touch points with your team regularly.

Embracing this change will improve service levels, team morale, productivity and retention. You will be more inspired to have some fun in your day instead of losing sleep at night worrying over that under-performing team member.

LARA HELLIER is the founder/director of People Passion (

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