Dealing with poor performance in seven steps

Apr 13, 2015 | Good Management

The most important thing to remember when an employee is not performing is do not ignore the situation and hope it will go away.

It can sometimes seem much easier to do this, to avoid confrontation or in the belief that raising an issue will upset the employee or make things worse, or in the genuine belief that the problem might go away.

However the employee deserves to know if there is an area of concern with their performance in order that they are given every opportunity to put it right as soon as possible. If your day to day feedback and communication is good, raising issues of concern should be easier.

This article outlines the best way of addressing poor performance effectively with a view to getting the improvement you need. Using this 7-step method will also provide you with the confidence to take things further if you need to, knowing that you can demonstrate that every possible attempt has been made to improve the situation.

1. Discussion

Hold an initial meeting with the employee where areas of performance which are not up to scratch are clearly identified, including examples of where they have gone wrong or are failing to meet reasonable objectives or targets.

It should be made clear to the employee that the goal is to improve their performance to an acceptable standard, including finding out reasons for non-performance where there are any, and providing support where necessary.

2. Reasons for non-performance

Establishing the reasons why an employee is not performing to an acceptable standard will help you address it in the most effective and appropriate way. Obviously asking the employee for reasons is important, however thinking about some of the following will help identify any underlying causes and ensure you are fully-informed before addressing poor performance.

  • How long has the employee been under-performing?
  • Have staffing levels changed?
  • Have there been other changes in the organisation recently, a new structure or new equipment?
  • Are their factors external to the organisation that may be affecting performance, for example a downturn in the market?
  • Are there any changes in personal circumstances that you are aware of?
  • Might there be conflict or bullying in the team?
  • Is there a possibility of work-related stress?
  • Is the employee demotivated?
  • Is there the possibility of an illness or disability affecting performance?

3. What do they need?

Make sure you ask the employee whether there is any additional support, training or assistance they need to achieve the improvement needed and give them an opportunity to request help where they need it.

You should also ask the individual if there is anything you are not aware of which may be affecting their performance (i.e. personal/health issues, etc). This way you can provide any support which is appropriate. This also means if you later need to take further action about their poor performance, they will not be able to blame other issues as they will have been given every opportunity to raise these.

4. Be clear about improvement

Ensure the employee is absolutely clear about what improved performance will look like and set clear, specific, measurable and reasonable objectives for improvement with reasonable and clear (but tight not too long or vague) timescales for these.

5. Review regularly

Regular meetings should then be set (and held) to monitor progress, update or review objectives where necessary, or set new ones for the following week/two week period where appropriate (objectives can be that short a timescale depending on the nature and seriousness of the performance problem). All meetings should be minuted by the manager and agreed by the employee so that it can be seen that any action plan for improvement has been agreed.

6. Consequences

Towards the end of the set period for performance management, if performance is not improving to the standard required, the employee should be made aware that the consequence of failing to improve to the required level may be use of the disciplinary procedure.

7. Disciplining or dismissing for poor performance

Many organisations have a separate- capability’ policy for addressing poor performance or an inability to do the job for whatever reason, although that is not strictly necessary, and most small businesses will rely on their disciplinary procedure. If the first 6 steps above haven’t achieved the result you want, you can give a formal disciplinary warning for poor performance.

Make sure you follow your disciplinary procedure properly, and stick to steps 2-6 above in the context of a formal disciplinary investigation or hearing; the step 6 consequence being a further warning or dismissal.

Occasionally it is necessary to dismiss someone for poor performance. Although- capability’ is a valid reason for dismissal, it is essential that you have made every effort to improve performance prior to doing so. This would involve following all the steps above, being sure that you have set objectives, made performance concerns clear, given opportunity to improve, investigated any reasons for poor performance and addressed them.

This is a very time consuming process however being tempted to rush it, assuming there will be no improvement, or not wanting to go through a stressful process, is more likely to result in a claim for unfair dismissal. You must be able to demonstrate objectively that you as the employer have made every effort to deal with the problem in a fair and reasonable manner.

I strongly advise that no small business owner considers dismissing someone for poor performance without taking professional advice as this can be a tricky area and although it’s possible to do it, it’s very easy to get it wrong.

A note about poor performance because of disability, illness or injury

If poor performance is caused by disability, illness or injury, it must be handled appropriately, and the above procedure may not be appropriate

Long term sickness

If the reason the employee is not performing is because they are returning to work from a long absence, you should consider the following:

  • Ensure you have sought medical or Occupational Health advice on what tasks the employee is fit to perform, whether there are any adjustments that need to be made, whether reduced hours or lighter duties for a time will ease the return.
  • Think about redeployment to another role if returning to the original role is not a possibility.
  • Dismissal – only if the employee is unable to return at all, or alternative work is not available. To dismiss fairly in these circumstances it is important that you can demonstrate having explored every possible route to facilitate the employee’s return to work. It is advised that you do not dismiss someone in these circumstances without taking professional advice.


An employee may have a pre-existing disability or may develop a condition that falls under the Equality Act during their employment. A disability is defined as- a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’

If an employee has or develops a disability, you are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to enable them to do their job. If an employee is not performing well and a disability is part of the cause, you must consider whether there are any adjustments you could make that would improve the situation. Adjustments might include changes to duties, improving accessibility, changing working patterns or shifts, introducing technological aids or increasing rest periods.

If there are no reasonable adjustments that can be made, or all reasonable adjustments possible have been made, you should then consider redeployment. Ultimately you may consider dismissing a disabled employee who is unable to perform in their role, however you must be able to demonstrate that every effort possible has been made to enable them to do their job or to find them something else. It is highly recommended that you do not dismiss in these circumstances without taking professional advice.

If you would like any assistance or advice in dealing with performance in your business do get in touch.