Poor Performance

Poor Performance

André Claassen


There seems to be a lack of understanding of the clear distinctions that separate the various conditions – in other words, the employer does not know what the charge should be. He only knows that what is happening is unacceptable to him, and the employee must be dismissed as quickly as possible.


The result of this uninformed action is that the employee is charged with negligence, poor performance, incapacity, misconduct and, as if that is not enough, the charge sheet also states that the trust relationship has irretrievably broken down and that the employment relationship has become intolerable. The poor employee goes into a cold sweat, is so stressed about all this that he/she does not even prepare a defense, and in fact has not the faintest idea what he is being charged with, nor even why he is being charged.


Based on all this, the final outcome is that the employee is dismissed, he/she goes to a labour lawyer or consultant, who, upon hearing the facts laughs gleefully and sends the employer an invitation to have tea at the CCMA and bring along his cheque book!!  Lets look at exactly what poor performance is, and the remedy for it. Poor Performance does not look at the behavior of the employee at work Problems of behavior are addressed under misconduct. Poor Performance looks at whether the job, which the employee is being paid to do, is being done properly.


Therefore, in establishing whether poor performance exists, one must ask the following questions in relation to the employee and the job :

[a] is the output sufficient?

[b] is the quality acceptable?

[c] are company operating procedures being followed?

[d] are costs kept within budget or is the amount of rejects unacceptably high?

[e] is the effort put in by the employee sufficient?

[f] Is it perhaps inability to do the job at the required level – can the employee perform satisfactorily at a lower level?

[g] is just plain incompetence? I.e. not insufficient effort, but a clearly a lack of ability to do the job?

[h] is it carelessness – lack of attention to detail?

[i]  is it a form of negligence but not misconduct? In other words "I don't care."

From the above, it now becomes clearer what the differences are between misconduct ( behavior) and poor performance ( ability) Misconduct deals with behavior – performance deals with ability.


Misconduct or unacceptable behavior occurs when a rule is broken, or some other unacceptable behavior happens. Assault, swearing at a customer, that sort of thing. Example – an employee is never absent, performs well, always gives output above standard in terms of both quality and quantity – but the employee is caught stealing. This is clearly misconduct – not poor performance. Misconduct usually results in immediate and severe disciplinary action – perhaps even dismissal. Poor Performance results in investigation, counseling, meeting and discussion with the employee, training and so on, before dismissal is even contemplated.


The procedures for handling poor performance are completely different from the procedures for handling misconduct. Performance is all about how the employee does the job – i.e. quality. Misconduct is all about behavior or conduct of the employee on the job in relation to company rules, policies and procedures. Now, before we go any further, you must clearly understand that the employer MUST ensure that the employee is fully aware of the Company Standards for the job, and that the employee is fully trained to do the job.


The employee cannot meet standards of quality and quantity when those standards have never been communicated to him/her, and likewise the employee cannot perform if no training has been given. If the required standards have never been communicated to the employee, and you have never taken steps to ensure proper training, your case of poor performance goes out the window and ends up on the compost heap!!!


The Remedy for Poor Performance

The first step is to hold a meeting (an informal affair) with the employee. You explain where the employee is falling short, what standard is not being met, and discuss the matter fully to see if the reason for the poor performance can be established.


It may be a domestic crisis that the employee has (pending divorce, sick child, financial problem, etc) or it may even be a work related problem, such as a supervisor who is victimizing the employee, harassing the employee in some way, and so on.


The important thing is to establish to cause – if you don't know the cause, you cannot treat the problem. Treating the symptoms is a useless exercise – the problem will not go away unless you treat the cause. Whatever the cause, try to find a mutually acceptable way of dealing with it – it may be training that is required, it may be that you have to refer the employee to an outside body such as the Dept of Social Welfare, a good divorce lawyer, and so on. Perhaps you will have to assist the employee financially, or help them obtain a loan from a financial institution.


But it is vitally important that all the proceedings are recorded in detail. These records will be required if you eventually have to dismiss the employee and the matter is taken up with the CCMA. You will have to prove that correct and fair procedures were followed, and you need written records to do this. Remember that in a case of unfair dismissal, the employee only has to prove that a dismissal took place. The employer must prove the fairness of the dismissal.


At the end of the counseling session, the employee must be warned of the consequences of failure to improve where such warning is appropriate. Bear in mind that the aim of the counseling session is not to punish the employee, but to assist him/her to recognize and overcome the problem. There is no rule of thumb regarding how many counseling sessions are required before dismissal, nor how much assistance or training must be given before dismissal, or demotion to a lower position which the employee can handle.


It will depend on many factors, such as length of service, how long has the employee been doing the job before he/she started screwing up, the nature of the job, the extent of the employee's willingness to co-operate and help solve the problem, what effect  the poor performance has had on the Company, and of course the nature of the poor performance itself. For example, if it is a vital function that is not being done, then that is serious – immediate improvement is required.


In the counseling session, you must be specific – it is not acceptable to state that the employee is "not making the grade" or "is not doing the job properly." The specific problem area must be defined and discussed in detail. It is no good telling the employee to "pull his socks up" or "get his act together." Be specific about what improvement is required, what standard is required to be met, in what area and by when. The counseling process is termed as " evaluation, instruction, training or guidance." Make sure that this is what you do.


If the matter comes to dismissal, then the Code of Good Practice – Dismissal  must be applied, as well as your own procedures if any. You are obliged to consider whether the employee did in fact fail to meet a performance standard, if he or she could reasonably be expected to have been aware of the required standard, whether a fair opportunity was given to the employee to meet the required standard, and most importantly you must assess whether or not dismissal is an appropriate (and perhaps the only available) sanction under the circumstances of the case.


Generally speaking, and considering all the facts of the matter, you should spend as much time as is reasonably expected to show that the employee was afforded all reasonable opportunity to rectify the matter. Obviously, if the poor performance is causing major operational problems, you will have to inform the employee that he has only a limited amount of time to rectify the matter before action is taken.



What do you do with the employee who is always busy but is unproductive?

This is difficult. This is the guy who is always "busy", but does not get the job done. He is eager but inefficient, as opposed to being openly lazy or uncooperative. Those types are easy to identify and deal with. The best way is frequent and firm counseling – make it quite plain what standard is required (as if he does not already know) and by when. Set deadlines, and inform him in writing what the consequences will be is there is no improvement.


What if the poor performance is caused because the employee was promoted, but later found that he/she can't handle the job? Lets take it further – management genuinely were under the impression that the employee could handle the higher position and the responsibilities that go with it. His previous record, albeit in a lower position, was excellent – he worked well and showed promise.


At a pre-promotion interview, the employee assured management he would be able to cope with the added responsibilities. Management were convinced that the employee was capable of bigger things – and decided to give him the opportunity. Now the promotion has been done, he has got the extra perks – a cellphone or company car – but it has now been revealed that the new job is in fact above his/her level of competence and capability. This "over-promotion" is not uncommon – but it is a sensitive issue, because management have contributed to the problem by promoting the employee.


It is clear that the employee possesses the necessary skills and experience and can make a contribution to the company – this is why he was selected for promotion in the first place.  However, managements decision has backfired.The poor performance and/or incapability cannot be ignored, especially in terms of operational needs, the needs of the company, and the needs of the employee. If it is possible to downgrade the employee, with a cut in salary and/or benefits ( with the agreement of the employee) then the problem is solved – just put him back to where he was.


Or negotiate something else – a demotion, with no cut in salary, but removal of the fringe benefits (the cellphone and car) But if the employee objects, is not willing to accept a salary cut or the loss of fringe benefits, nor willing to accept a demotion (loss of face to his fellow employees) then the problem is more serious. The bottom line is that clearly, the problem is incapacity, and equally clearly, the employer has no obligation to continue with a non-performing working relationship with this employee. That is the "tough bottom line."


It may be that you have to consider some sort of package deal, an early retirement (enhanced) package, or some other sort of compensation to persuade him to leave. An important lesson here is that an employee should never be promoted because he is good in his present job – he should be promoted because he can perform in the new jobWhat if the poor performance is caused by some change to the job itself?


Yes, this can happen. Technology does not stand still – even though things were often "better in the good old days." The employee may suddenly find himself faced with having to do a job (which he has been doing for years) with new machines, new methods, which he is simply incapable of doing. We can go through the whole gambit of training etc, but perhaps it is just simply beyond his capability.


This type of poor performance is not the fault of the employee – he has been made to perform poorly because of changes to his job specification. It would be unfair and unacceptable to ignore the employee's past record of good and competent service by telling him to either perform or face dismissal. This is not a straight-forward case of poor performance or incompetence. Initially, the employee must be counseled to try and establish whether he is unable or unwilling to do the job.


In some cases, it is found that the employee has simply been overwhelmed by the enormity of the job, the increased number of tasks which face him daily, the realization that perhaps for the first time ever he now is faced with very real responsibility and accountability, and he withdraws into a sort of "safety zone" by not performing and in fact harboring a secret hope that he will be taken off the job and placed back in his old position. 


This you will only establish by counseling and skilful questioning – in some cases by asking some very direct (and perhaps embarrassing) questions of the employee. You will finally have to make a decision – either put him back where he was or retrench.


Offer him/her a good package, and call it a day.  What if the employee performs o.k. but suddenly the level of performance drops ? Consistent levels of performance are not the norm – everybody has their "off-days". There also may be a family crisis of some sort, or even a health problem, so their will be occasions where the employee will perform below the acceptable level. Again, it is counseling time – establish the problem, and address it. What about a "go-slow"? How do we handle it?


This is usually a deliberate act of slowing down production in order to force the employer to agree to some or other demand – higher wages, perhaps. It is very seldom an individual thing, but rather collective. You may have to consult with Shop Stewards to establish the reason. This is of course industrial action and should be dealt with in the same way as a strike. Is it essential to give the employee time to improve?


In the interests of staying out of the CCMA, yes – it is the best way, even with a well experienced employee. Obviously, you may not give a well experienced employee as much time as with a lesser experienced employee. But the counseling process, the careful explanation of the standards required and the standards not being met, as well as setting of deadlines for improvement to take place is vital. How much training am I expected to provide?


There is no rule of thumb here. Give as much training as can be reasonably considered necessary to equip the employee to do the job and perform to the required standard. New technology, a new machine and so on may require fairly comprehensive training.

If a new employee joins the company and gives the clear understanding that he knows the job and processes, but this later proves not to be the case, then obviously you would not spend as much training time here as with one of your other employees whom you know has had no training. Poor Performance due to ill health. If the illness is of a temporary nature, you will have to live with it until the employee recovers. If the illness is permanent or likely to become permanent, then it is a problem of incapacity due to ill health rather than a problem of poor performance. You would then handle it accordingly.


Can I demand that the employee be medically examined if I suspect illness or that he may be on drugs? If you doubt his claim that the poor performance is due to ill health, then you may insist that the employee undergo an independent medical examination. However, you will have to pay for this – not the employee. Is demotion an option in cases of poor performance? This is definitely an option, provided the employee agrees to the demotion. This applies particularly in the case of the recently promoted employee who cannot handle the requirements and responsibilities of the new position. He cannot handle the demands of the new position. Remember however that counseling and follow up are still important.


Is poor performance always the employee's problem? The first thing to do is check that the employee is fully aware of and  understands the standards that are not being met. If he is, then look for other causes that account for the failure to reach the standards – for example, his tool may be sub-standard or worn out. Thus, the poor performance may not necessarily always be the fault of the employee. It is vital that every employer must ensure that every employee is fully aware of and fully understands the standards required in his/her job processes. For that matter, all employees should be fully aware of and fully understand all Company rules, regulations, procedures and performance standards.


It is equally important that work processes are monitored to ensure that standards are being met. If an employee does not meet standards, and you do nothing about it, you are in effect telling him that the standards don't matter and it is of no consequence if he/she fails to meet laid down standards. This means that you are telling the employee that sub-standard performance is acceptable, And before long the sub-standard performance becomes the new standard!!




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