HR clinic: Dealing with poor performance

How should we deal with an employee who is underperforming because he lacks technical skill?

You sent him on a training course, which he resisted, but it's made no difference. He's either not capable of doing the job, not willing or both. Whatever the cause of his poor performance, you can't afford to leave the problem.

His resistance to going on the course could be because he was afraid his inadequacies would be exposed or because he didn't believe there was anything he needed to learn. If employees perceive training courses as punishment, they won't learn much.

If you're faced with a similar situation in the future, it's prudent to explain to the employee why the training is necessary, being as positive as you can about their achievements. Back in the present, you have an unsustainable situation, and the ways forward fall into two categories: counselling and procedural.

The counselling route is less painful. Explain to him that you aren't satisfied with his performance and that crunch time has arrived. Either he immediately pulls his socks up, with support, and shows a rapid and sustained improvement, or he recognises that is never going to happen and he must leave the organisation on mutually agreed terms. The latter course is tough on him, but offers you the chance of a fresh start.

If he resists this informal route, you enter the formal procedure and he is entitled to representation. If you believe he is being deliberately obstructive, it would be legitimate to press disciplinary charges against him for wilfully working below the required standard. The outcome of such a process, assuming culpability is established, could be a series of warnings about future behaviour. In the extreme, it would result in dismissal with notice.

The alternative to disciplinary charges is to use your capability procedure. If you don't have one, you should develop one straight away. Base it on your disciplinary procedure, but the underlying message should be that it's not the employee's fault that he's underperforming; he's just a victim of circumstances.

The effect on the organisation is the same, but the outcomes are slightly different. Instead of issuing a warning, you pronounce a mandatory improvement programme, which should include training, and institute regular progress reviews. If that doesn't work, you'll have no choice but to sack him with notice.

- John Burnell is director of Personnel Solutions 

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