Performance management: Employee performance improvement

The performance management process can be uncomfortable and leaders and employees will typically avoid it, especially if things are not going well. Feedback and documentation are most important when there is a need for performance improvement.

While employers will make a best effort to hire suitable employees during recruitment, sometimes even the best employees can start to struggle. Some common indicators that a performance problem exists include:

  • Deadlines slipping
  • Inconsistent effort and contribution
  • Unacceptable quality of work or output volume
  • Complaints from customers or colleagues about the employee’s behaviour

Managing employee performance improvement

A leader must first clearly define the performance problem and investigate if underlying problems exist, either at work or at home, that can be addressed to support performance improvement. There may be a variety of reasons for a lack of performance. Most issues can be addressed in a supportive way.

Performance issues often arise from:

  • A lack of understanding of what the position or task requires
  • An inability to admit a lack of required skills
  • Boredom
  • Frustration with inefficient processes
  • Unreasonable expectations that cause excess stress
  • Discomfort with lack of support from leadership and/or co-workers
  • Personal issues happening at home

Addressing a performance issue

The sooner a performance issue is addressed, the easier it will be to resolve. The longer it is “left alone,” the worse it gets. Over time the issue will infect other members of the team, and potentially customer satisfaction and your business reputation.

When signs of a problem emerge, whether it’s something as simple as perpetual lateness, or something more serious, have a conversation as soon as you can. First collect facts and gather information that will support your discussion.

Being able to express the direct impact of an employee’s performance on the business can be valuable as well. A discussion around “you have been away sick every Friday for the past six weeks” sends a clearer message than “seems like you’ve been sick a lot lately.”

Tips to make the process more effective

  • Stay objective and fair
  • Focus on factual incidents or demonstrated behaviour
  • Listen to the employee’s responses
  • Be prepared to address any serious work-related stresses
  • Know where to point an employee if personal challenges are present (for example, an employee assistance program [EAP] if you have one)
  • Develop a performance improvement plan to improve the situation, if required (note that this may not be necessary if the problem is quickly correctable)

Developing a performance improvement plan

If a performance improvement plan is required, its goal should be to offer a pro-active and supportive plan to resolve a specific problem. This involves defining expectations as a set of specific, measurable outcomes within a reasonable amount of time, generally not exceeding three months. This plan should include:

  • An explanation of the issue
  • Specific expected outcomes
  • Employee responsibilities (for example, actively participating in additional training, taking advantage of an EAP)
  • Employer responsibilities (for example, providing additional training or offering an EAP service, or changing the reporting relationship)
  • A set timeline to assess progress and achieve the outcomes

Administering a performance improvement plan

To ensure that the employee clearly knows what is expected of them and to prepare the company should termination become necessary, a leader or employer should:

  • Present the plan to the employee
  • Hold regular progress reviews to assess progress towards desired outcomes
  • Conduct a final assessment to determine level of success and next steps

Documentation of these steps must be kept in the employee file. If an employee achieves the desired level of improvement, document this and place the assessment in the employee file.

A leader can provide an extension at their discretion when an employee makes substantial progress, however needs to do more to reach the desired performance level. Document this assessment and place it in the employee’s file. Follow up in the designated period of time.

If the desired level of improvement is not achieved, then it is likely time to consider termination.

Performance improvement plans can be tricky and time consuming. Businesses should invest in an experienced HR professional when serious performance problems appear.

Read next: Performance reviews: Managing performance effectively