Addressing performance issues

While employees experience many types of performance issues, most fall into one of three categories:

  • Productivity (failure to meet timelines, quality standards, or production targets).
  • Attendance (failure to come into work, coming in late, or leaving early).
  • Conduct (failure to meet behavioral standards).

Performance usually becomes an issue when there is a pattern of unmet expectations. However, a single incident may be severe enough to merit disciplinary action.

Strategies for success

  • Take steps to reinforce the value that performance makes a difference. This includes:
    • Clear communication of executive commitment.
    • Management accountability with clear supervisor expectations.
    • Supervisor training.
  • Hire the right supervisors. Successfully handling performance problems requires specific talents and skills. Not everyone has the ability (or desire) to do it well. Develop core supervisory competencies, and hire those who demonstrate strong aptitude.
  • Build trust and partnerships between supervisors and HR. Roles must be clear, understood, and respected. HR should know and focus on achieving supervisors’ business results. Supervisors should understand HR’s role in managing risk and promoting executive management’s policies and values.
  • Build constructive relationships with labor union personnel. Use positive relationships with union staff or shop stewards to help employees make reasonable choices and focus on the actions needed to move forward and be successful.
  • Ensure communication between supervisors and their appointing authorities. Supervisors should clearly understand the expectations of the leader authorized to take disciplinary action. Before taking a lower level action (e.g., written reprimand), supervisors should make sure the appointing authority wouldn’t prefer to escalate the discipline to a higher level.
  • Identify the source of the problem before taking action. Not all performance issues are willful. Disciplinary action is unlikely to improve performance if the cause is a lack of clear expectations or the death of a family member. Review the employee’s past performance and talk directly with him or her before jumping to conclusions.
  • Focus on success. The purpose of corrective and disciplinary action is not to punish an employee. It’s to alert the employee that there is a significant issue that needs to be addressed. The ultimate goal is to improve the performance.
  • Address issues immediately. Postponing action often results in ‘paying twice,’ as the organization deals with both the individual’s productivity loss and the negative impact on the morale and productivity of other employees.
  • Identify required competencies. Supervisors and employees should clearly understand the knowledge skills, abilities, and behaviors required to meet performance expectations. This allows supervisors to assess whether a competency gap is the driver of a productivity problem, and determine an appropriate course of action. 
  • Consider implementing a performance work plan. A work plan outlines the actions an employee must take to improve his or her performance. A workplan typically includes:
    • The specific performance elements requiring improvement.
    • An action plan detailing what steps the employee must take to meet performance expectations.
    • Timeframes for achieving performance targets.
    • Standards and expectations for performance in measurable or observable terms.
    • Information about the support management will provide.
    • Information about what will happen once the work plan is completed.
    • Signatures from both the employee and supervisor.
  • Give employees access to external support. Performance issues are often the result of personal life difficulties such as illness, home life issues, or substance abuse. Make sure that employees are aware of access to individual support through the Employee Assistance Program.

Potential challenges

  • Analysis Paralysis. It is easy to avoid taking action until every possible alternative is considered. Failure to decide has consequences.
  • Failure to escalate. Some supervisors shy away from corrective or disciplinary action in favor of repeated performance counseling. Yet underperforming employees sometimes need incentive – in the form of consequences – to improve. Be sure to escalate to higher levels of action until the desired results are achieved.
  • Labor Relations. A poor understanding of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and employees’ rights to representation can delay or halt attempts to address performance issues. Supervisors should receive training in both the CBA and principles of labor relations.
  • Disability Accommodation. Employers have a legal obligation to discuss possible accommodations if an employee notifies them that a performance problem may be caused by a disability. The purpose of the discussion is to determine whether there are accommodations that will allow the employee to successfully perform the job’s essential functions.
  • Individuals’ differing expectations. Employees may have conflicting ideas of what constitutes ‘productivity’ or ‘appropriate conduct.’ Culture, religion, gender, generation, and other factors contribute to these differences. Problems may arise if management is not clear about their own expectations, or is unaware of underlying conflicts between employees. 
  • Lack of documentation or prior performance management. Inexperienced supervisors may not properly document their conversations and actions. New supervisors may inherit performance problems that previous employers failed to address. Often the best strategy is to start from scratch with good documentation and performance management.
  • Failure to address senior leaders’ performance issues. How the organization deals with senior managers sends a strong message to employees. Ignoring the poor performance of senior managers tells employees that performance is not important. It is critical that the organization’s senior leaders model good performance management.


Last updated
Tuesday, May 2, 2023
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