Diagnosing poor performance, and what to do about it

Leaving problems uncorrected sends message that inappropriate behaviour is acceptable

One of the most important jobs for management in any organization is dealing with performance problems and taking disciplinary action when required. However, managers too frequently avoid acting, leaving problems uncorrected.

Inaction signals to employees that unsatisfactory performance and inappropriate behaviour are acceptable, or that employees can skirt or even break rules or regulations without fear of discipline.

This situation exists because, too often, management thinks formal discipline is the only way to deal with poor performance and unacceptable behaviour. It exists because management (and labour, where employees are represented by a union) failed to explore the many ways to deal effectively with workplace performance issues in a more enlightened manner, using approaches that provide greater potential for producing results benefitting both employees and management.

Performance and disciplinary problems, can be categorized into four distinct types (see box, page 10). If the goal is to correct the problem, then categorization is crucial to determining an appropriate strategy for improvement. The first of these four types involves situations where the employee’s quality and/or quantity of work is unsatisfactory, through no extenuating circumstances, as identified in types 2, 3, and 4.

The immediate benefit of sorting problems into categories is that it encourages a thorough analysis. It frames the examination of a broader array of possible causes and, most importantly, assists in developing strategies for resolution that are non-punitive and developmental.

The primary source of information on type 1 problems is performance measurement data, as well as behavioural observation, complaints and incidents. The causes of poor performance can originate in one of two areas: management- and organization-centred causes; or employee-centred causes.

Managerial and organizational causes

The managerial and organizational shortcomings that most often cause unsatisfactory performance include:

Lack of understanding of role and expectations: In many instances management fails to tell subordinates what their role is and what is expected of them. Performance problems arise when the individual employee establishes performance expectations that are different from those of the organization. Or, in the absence of clearly defined standards and objectives, the employee simply does not perform to management’s expectations, undefined as they might be.

Inappropriate job assignment: Another managerial or organizational cause of poor performance occurs when the corporation makes a poor job assignment. This fault is more apt to be found in a growing organization, but it also occurs in more stable situations. The problem lies in promoting, transferring or otherwise assigning an employee to a job to which the person is not fitted because of a lack of competency, personality or interest.

Lack of training: There is little justification for assigning an individual to a job the person isn’t trained for. Unless employees are adequately trained for their positions, it is unreasonable to expect them to perform to acceptable standards.

Job design: In many instances poor performance arises because of the design of the job. Employees will be motivated to perform well in jobs that offer variety, a challenge, responsibility and an opportunity for personal growth. If the task the employee has to accomplish does not have these characteristics, less than optimum performance can be expected.

Inadequate or poor supervision: If an employee’s supervisor is providing inappropriate direction and information, negative or inappropriate feedback, or inconsistent supervision, then performance problems will usually occur.

Employee-centred cause

A second major cause of unsatisfactory performance lies with employees themselves. The problems that arise from these causes are varied and numerous. In some cases, the problems are enough to cause unsatisfactory performance by the individual. In other cases, they become evident only when combined with organizational problems. The most common employee-centred causes are the following:

Lack of interest: To perform an employee has to be interested in the work that needs to be accomplished.

Personality: In some instances a person’s personality may be a major cause of poor performance. Personalities are very difficult if not impossible to change. In these cases, it may be necessary to move the individual to another assignment more in keeping with the employee’s personality. For example, not everyone’s temperament is suited to customer service.

Limited capabilities: Every individual has a limit to what they can do. Just as we all have physical limits as to how fast we can run or high we can jump, there are limits to our capabilities to carry out certain organizationally required functions.

A review of the causes will allow the manager to better determine the best approach to solving the problem. In unionized environments, it is at this stage of the analysis that the level of co-operation between labour and management will be most tested. There will be a temptation for the parties to fall into traditional adversarial patterns of dealing with one another. There is a need for objectivity and recognition that they have mutual interests in resolving the problem in the best interest of the company, the union and the employee.

Performance improvement strategies

Identifying and clarifying role and expectations: As a strategy for improving performance, first clearly outline with the employee the role and what is expected. Role clarification can be facilitated if a job description exists. This job description can serve as a basis for discussion between the boss and subordinate. In a similar sense, the development of objectives and work plans for the individual employee, along with measurable standards of expected performance, can be of significant help in clarifying expectations.

Training and development: The challenge in achieving results with a poorly performing employee is to be certain that:

•a lack of training or skills deficiency is the real reason for the performance discrepancy; and

•management is prepared to support the individual in applying the learned skills once training is completed.

Organization development: In cases where the organization is acting as a barrier to the attainment of expected performance levels, dialogue should take place with the employee regarding those barriers and how they might be removed or avoided. This dialogue can take the form of a meeting, involving all the employees in a department or work unit, to identify and resolve problems.

It is important that such a meeting is well-planned and that action is taken after the session. In many instances, organizations that follow this strategy continue with the process of employee involvement by including staff in the development and implementation of action plans for problem resolution.

Job involvement/enrichment/
Where there is a low level of interest, increased employee involvement or job enrichment will produce higher performance levels. The type and nature of these changes can be extensive and, in some cases, difficult to implement. However, in many instances, organizations have responded to the alienation of workers by dramatically re-engineering the whole way in which they produce products or provide services. These initiatives have produced substantial improvements in performance not only for the individuals involved, but also for whole organizational units.

Increased feedback: In many cases, employees perform below standard because they do not receive timely and accurate feedback on their performance. For increased feedback to be most effective, the employee has to know and understand what is expected in specific measurable terms. The employee must then receive, either through a supervisor or through some kind of measurement and reporting mechanism, timely feedback on performance.

Management development: The development and education of supervisors at all levels of the organization in techniques of motivation, communication, leadership and other essential managerial skills is an important step in resolving performance problems.

Managers must be knowledgeable about managerial techniques if they or their employees are going to be expected to perform effectively. Equally, managers have to be empowered to be able to do something about problems identified by employees. Most importantly, managers have to realize that their effectiveness is determined by the performance of their employees and that through training, support, information and involvement employees are going to perform more effectively.

Removal: Where there is a poor fit between the employee and the job, then removal, either in terms of transfer or termination, has to be considered. Too often, managers see this alternative as being the only one without seriously examining other possibilities such as those outlined above. In other cases, managers are not prepared to “bite the bullet” and deal with a situation that can only be resolved through relocating the individual. In the long-run, both the individual and the organization benefit from removal and therefore this alternative has to be seriously considered.

The implementation of this alternative is often not easy, particularly where employees have certain seniority rights under a collective agreement. Access to good training programs and reasonable probationary provisions in the case of transfer can facilitate the use of this solution. In the case of termination, the provision of outplacement counselling and fair severance benefits can ease fear and apprehension.

The roots of underperformance

Type 1: Situations where the employee’s quality and/or quantity of work is unsatisfactory, through no extenuating circumstances, as identified in Types 2, 3, and 4.

Type 2: Situations where personal, off-the-job problems, are influencing the employee’s work performance. Issues include alcoholism, drug abuse, financial, health or family problems.

Type 3: Situations where there has been a deliberate violation of the law or established company rule or regulation, such as theft, fighting, falsification of records, conflict of interest, harassment and safety infractions

Type 4: Situations where there have been repeated minor violations of company rules and regulations or performance problems that have not responded to non-disciplinary corrective action. This includes minor safety infractions, incidental insubordination, uncorrected tardiness, continued poor quality workmanship.

For ways of dealing with Types 2, 3 and 4, click on the “Related Articles” link below.

Mark Alexander is a principal with the Vancouver-based HR consultancy MacB Group. He may be reached at (778) 772 9300 or at [email protected].

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