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The HR Manager: How to Deal with Underperforming Employees

Is it better to work on an improvement plan—or simply cut ties?

By Karen Hawkins

Many of my clients, large and small, frequently struggle with employees who have performance issues. Those issues often lead to a common dilemma: Is it time to cut ties or =give yet one more chance for improvement? I give the following advice for determining the best course of action.

Things to consider
Unemployment claims. Would the person file a claim? Has the employee received proper training? Is there sufficient documentation and warning to substantiate the employer’s decision to terminate? Was progressive discipline given appropriately? Would the termination be related to gross misconduct or habitual violation of work rules as defined in your handbook? Depending on the situation, unemployment payments may sometimes be awarded to employees upon termination if the employee hasn’t been given sufficient expectations, training and/or warnings to improve.

Legal issues. Are all the bases covered as they should be? No discriminatory actions; are you consistent with past practice? Has the person has been made well aware of the standards and acknowledged that he/she will follow those? This may require further review by a human resources consultant or legal counsel.

Ethical/moral issues. What could be the impact to the remaining workforce? If their perception is that the person wasn’t given enough notice or chance to correct their performance, the reaction may be that the employer was too harsh. Although employees do not determine your course of action, it is a factor to consider.

Best practices regarding discipline. Have a handbook with well-defined policies. Employees should receive the policies and sign an acknowledgment.

Train your leadership staff regarding procedures and how/when to properly deliver discipline if needed.

Document, document, document. All relative information and coachings should be documented and done so in a timely manner.
Address performance issues promptly. This should be VERY specific as to what exactly is being done incorrectly and what should be done to improve.

Use progressive discipline unless there is an egregious violation. This means methodically following steps that are typically outlined in the handbook: informal coaching, verbal warnings, written warnings, performance improvement (optional) and termination. Major issues such as stealing, violating a cardinal safety rule, sexual harassment, willful property damage, etc. are all reasons to move straight to termination.

Performance Improvement Plans
Performance Improvement Plans should include:
• Information regarding past warnings—dates, issues and consequences.
• The behavior or performance that is not up to par. Be very specific.
• Exactly what must improve.
• A timeline for improvement.
• Check-in dates to discuss progress status.
• Consequences (typically termination) if the terms aren’t met.
• A section for the employee to write comments as well as that person’s plan to improve, including what tools or training are needed and what will be done differently.
I have also used a “day of deliberation,” where the employee is provided with a performance improvement plan, given the day off with pay and then comes back to re-set and really put forth the extra effort to make things right. This day off to think about things has had surprisingly good results.
The big question: When to offer a performance improvement plan versus termination?
I recommend performance improvement plans when:
• Only one or two documented warnings have been given previously and things are continuing to occur.
• Over time, warnings have been given. The person improves but is habitual with slipping back into poor performance. A final warning needs to be presented to correct behavior or work to make the improvements stick for good.
• The person truly appears to be trying and may need more training but does need a deadline to improve.
• The person’s attitude is such that he/she is not trying to improve and needs to be given a stern warning to understand this is the final chance.

I recommend termination when:
• A very serious policy violation has occurred.
• Progressive discipline of at least two to three prior documented warnings have been given that listed consequences of the next step and performance has still not improved.
As we all know, each employee case is different. Getting advice from your HR department, HR consultant or legal counsel is usually best when getting to these serious levels of discipline.