Discipline and Managing Poor Performance

See also: Communicating in Difficult Situations

Our pages on Performance Reviews and Appraisals explains the process of assessing and reviewing performance on a regular basis. But what happens when a member of your team is performing badly?

This page explains how to manage poor performance.

The page covers some broad principles, but many organisations have set out their own individual arrangements and processes for performance management.

If in doubt, you should follow your organisation’s arrangements and consult your HR team.


Defining Poor Performance

A definition


Poor performance on this page is defined as persistent and ongoing failure to perform to the standards required for the job.

In other words, it is not finding the job hard for the first few weeks, but a failure to improve despite repeated help and support being provided. It is also not a one-off, but an ongoing situation.

It will, therefore, take time to resolve the situation, and may also take a considerable amount of energy.


Poor performance may be a matter of lack of ability (or capability), motivation, or misconduct.

  • Lack of capability is about being unable to change in the required way, and do the job;
  • Lack of motivation is a lack of desire to do the job properly; and
  • Misconduct is a refusal to change.

It can be difficult to determine which is which in practice, but the way that you tackle it may be different. For example, if the issue is lack of ‘capability’, then training or coaching may be helpful. However, motivation may be best addressed by helping the person to find a new job. It may only be possible to deal with misconduct by threatening the person with dismissal.

It is, therefore, helpful to try to determine the root cause if possible, preferably by discussing it with the person concerned.


Principles of Managing Poor Performance

There are a number of principles that you should follow in managing poor performance.

1. Provide feedback on inadequate performance as soon as possible

Disciplinary or performance proceedings are (or should be) the end of a process, not the beginning.

If someone you manage does some work that is not at the required standard, you should speak to them about it straight away and provide feedback on their performance.

You may find our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback is helpful.

This does not mean that you should reprimand them. Instead, it means you should help them to understand how they can improve for next time.

It is possible that this will be a one-off but, even if it is not, everyone needs to be given a chance to improve, and some coaching or training to help them to do so. As their manager, it is your responsibility to provide this support, and ensure that they are given time to improve.

You may find our page on Coaching Skills helpful in managing the situation.

2. Try some alternatives

Rather than launching straight into disciplinary proceedings, it may be better to try some other options first if the person struggles to improve despite training.

It is good to consider that there may be a complete mismatch between person and job for some reason, and that it may be easier to change the job than the person. Options include:

  • Refitting the job to them: take some elements away, and give them other work instead. This takes work, but it may be quicker and easier than trying to ‘fit a square peg into a round hole’.
  • Moving the person somewhere else: find them another job that is better suited to their skills.

Both these options are obviously easier in larger organisations, but are worth considering because they can help with both capability and motivation issues.

3. Document everything

If you enter disciplinary proceedings, you are likely to be supported by HR colleagues who will remind you of the importance of documenting everything.

However, it should already be clear that disciplinary proceedings are the end of the line. Our page on Appraisals and Performance Reviews sets out that all performance discussions should be documented, if only to provide evidence for formal appraisal processes. This is particularly true of poor performance, and can be as simple as sending the person you manage an email saying,

We met today and discussed the fact that your performance in task [x] had not been quite up to standard. We agreed that next time, you would consider doing … [list of agreed outcomes]”

If you get into the habit of doing this, then in the event of having to deal with ongoing poor performance, you will have a long train of evidence going back weeks, if not months or years, of how you have tried to help that person improve.

4. Use the proper procedures

If you think you may have a genuine performance issue on your hands—rather than just someone having an off-day, or needing some training to help them with a particular aspect of the job—then you need to manage it using your organisation’s procedures for doing so.

Failure to do so will result in problems further down the line, and possibly employment tribunals or claims for unfair dismissal.

It is, therefore, worth consulting the HR team (if there is one) as soon as possible, and ensuring that they are aware of the situation, and providing advice where necessary.

5. Tailor your approach to the person

Although procedures are important, it is also important to consider the person concerned.

If the poor performance is linked to motivation, performance management procedures may not be the answer. Sometimes people perform badly because they are unhappy, or because there is something going on outside work that is affecting them. A family bereavement, for example, can affect someone’s ability to work, or their motivation.

If you think that something like that is going on, it is best to talk to them about how you can help before you launch into disciplinary proceedings.

You may, for example, be able to move work around the team to lighten that person’s load for a few weeks or months, or help them to find a less demanding job that would suit them better for the time being. Helping someone into another job can be a much better outcome for you, them, and the organisation than months of disciplinary proceedings.

6. Keep going if necessary

Performance procedures tend to involve warnings, and periods of probation. For example, someone might be given an informal warning, and have a month to improve, then a written warning, with a similar period.

What is often seen is that performance improves for that month, and then lapses again immediately or shortly afterwards, so the process has to begin again.

This is very wearing for everyone involved.

It is also why it is important to involve HR early on. They can, for example, agree that the warning period can be extended if necessary (perhaps because you and they feel that past experience suggests that this employee will find it hard to sustain improved performance), or that you can start at a later stage in the proceedings. This is particularly important where you think that the issue may be misconduct (i.e. refusal to change), because that person may well have been doing this a long time, and know exactly how to play the system.

Under those circumstances, moving someone on is a long game, and you need to be patient.


TOP