Keeping Performance Management On Track

Workplaces of all shapes and sizes need employees to pull their weight, so why do so many organisations tolerate underperformance?

Dealing with underperformance and performance management is not easy. For an organisation to succeed, employees need to be meeting and exceeding performance expectations. Yet too often unsatisfactory performance is ignored and placed in the ‘too hard’ basket.

The video below illustrates a case study about managing performance, and how easily it can go wrong.

The reasons for this are twofold. At a human level it can be challenging to tell a colleague that their work is substandard. Add in the perceived legal complexities surrounding performance management, including the potential for allegations of bullying or victimisation in response, and it is unsurprising that many underperforming staff are simply left to their own devices or quietly shuffled elsewhere.

But given the financial, human and workplace culture consequences of ignoring underperformance, it is imperative that management adopt a ‘can do’ mindset in this area. Minor or aberrant instances of underperformance should be courteously nipped in the bud, and not escalated unnecessarily. For more serious or longer term underperformance, let me give you an outline of key steps in any ‘defensible’ performance management process.

The first step is to identify whether a genuine performance problem exists. Information gathering is essential. In addition to obtaining any quantitative data, holding regular performance reviews and keeping written notes allows underperformance to be identified with more certainty than relying on the ‘feeling’ of a direct supervisor. Ensure that the performance expectations are aligned with the relevant duty statement or employment agreement, the resources the employee has to work with, and how much they are being paid.

The second step after a genuine gap in performance is identified is to find out if the organisation has a performance management policy. If they do, this should be followed to the letter to avoid claims of unfair dismissal, breach of contract or procedural fairness. [If the policy is hard to apply because it is poorly drafted – a common occurrence – it should be followed as best as possible in the instant case, and then later rewritten to make it work for the organisation]. If the organisation doesn’t have a policy, then a sound framework to follow is summarised as follows: Identify the gap in performance with specificity, and identify reasonable measures to fill the gap within a reasonable time frame. Inform the employee in writing of these matters, as well as the consequences of non-improvement. ‘Reasonableness’ is an objective test, so getting a second manager’s opinion on the contents of the letter would be a good idea.

The third step is to keep the process on track during the assessment phase. Again, follow any policy, but if there isn’t one, monitor and give feedback against the notified performance measures. This means the assessment manager needs to be present during this period. That manager’s communications should be constructive, courteous and on-task, regardless of how the employee conducts themselves during this stressful phase. A common de-railer at this point is often an allegation by the employee that their manager is bullying them. But reasonable performance management carried out in a reasonable manner is not bullying at law, nor in most Australian jurisdictions, is it grounds for workers compensation for any resultant stress injury.

The fourth step is decision-making at the conclusion of the assessment period. If, on objective assessment, performance has satisfactorily improved over the period, then mission accomplished. However, where genuine underperformance remains, this is generally a valid reason for termination of employment, in both the public and private sectors. The employee should be notified of any intention to terminate in writing, giving opportunity to respond ahead of any decision being recorded in writing. Transfer should only be considered where the transfer is to a role that will not be affected by the identified performance deficit.

Finally, there is nothing wrong with offering an employee up-front the opportunity to resign (with or without an incentive), as an alternative to going through the performance management process.

Underperformance affects an entire organisation. Individual instances can and should be managed by common sense, fairness, and following any policies to the letter. Remember: the standard we walk past is the standard we set.

Gabrielle Sullivan is a Director in the Employment and Workplace Relations team at Bradley Allen Love Lawyers.