Tackling Performance Issues Head-On

Posted on 4th October 2016

Dealing with an employee who is struggling to meet the performance levels you require of them is a challenge that many small business owners find difficult. We all want our employees to arrive at work with a smile, to excel at all the tasks asked of them, and to make a stellar contribution to the financial wellbeing of the business. But, as we all know, it doesn’t always work that way. So this week’s blog is a bit of a long one, but it’s an important topic and one which is relevant to everyone….

If you’re noticing that a member of your team isn’t performing how you expected or wanted, the most important thing you can do is actually talk to them about it. All too often we speak to clients who say they have an issue with someone’s performance (and it has usually been a concern for some time) but they have not told the person – or they have attempted to tell them, but they have simply not been clear enough in how they have communicated it.

It is quite possible that the person in question is blissfully unaware of these concerns and genuinely thinks they are doing a good job. With some guidance and explanation on your part, these employees can easily rise to the standard expected. When you speak to them it is extremely important that you set out very clearly what is expected of them and the level of improvement expected, and by when. Remain open to any additional training or support that they need and, if you promise some, make sure you deliver it. If you want them to improve you need to help them to do so.

Use some measures specific to their role and what you want them to improve on, e.g. time per consultation, number of bookings, new clients, new offer sign-ups, admin tasks completed. Make sure they are measurable. Setting definite goals for improvement can prove a key motivator, and make sure you review their progress – whether the improvements have been achieved or not.

There are many employees who respond positively to this kind of approach, but unfortunately there are some who don’t, and their performance continues to disappoint, or even gets worse. If it gets to the stage where you feel this employee’s attitude or performance cannot be fixed and you no longer want them working for you, there are official steps you can take towards dismissing them.

However, it is vital that you do this properly. When it comes to claims for unfair dismissal, it is a two-fold test. The first is whether you had a fair reason to dismiss them (in these kind of cases we’ve been referring to it would either be capability or conduct) and the second is whether you did it properly. If, as a business, you have not carried out a fair process and followed legal minimums then you can lose a case regardless of how good your reason was.

Performance is very different to attitude. Performance issues usually arise when someone wants to do a good job, but for whatever reason they cannot; but attitude is within their control.

A wider problem

If there is more than ‘one bad apple’ in your practice, then the kind of challenge you face now is to try and change the culture of the workplace.

The most useful approach, although it can be a big challenge for the business owner, is to have an open conversation with the whole team. Be honest with people and say you have concerns that the workplace is not a happy place to be, and that you want to change this. Ask the team if they agree and if they can share why this is. You may get feedback in the meeting but also have one-to-one meetings afterwards so people can share what they may not have wanted to in front of the group. The most important thing with this approach is to then take action; if the staff member suggests changes they want from you, make sure you at least seriously consider them and be seen to implement if possible/appropriate.

Also, ensure you praise the behaviours you want to see. So, for example, make sure the person who tends give excellent customer service is thanked, preferably in front of others. Recognise in team meetings the person who has the best telephone manner, or the person who signs up the most people to a new offer. This will encourage a repeat of these behaviours but will also show others that they get praise for it.

Some practices like to introduce team bonding initiatives to help raise morale. The type of activity you may decide to go for will depend on the team that you have in terms of demographics, likes/dislikes, and also how well they all know each other and have worked together.

There is still a lot to be said for just having some simple time out as a team, whether that is a drink after work or a meal out. Do be careful to make sure that as far as possible everyone can come along, so give some thought to part-time workers and those with commitments outside of work.

Another good example is having some time out of the business as a team but with a business focus, perhaps an annual review of the year and agreeing of objectives for the business – with some fun rolled into it of course.

Common mistakes to avoid

We have worked with many employers on these kind of issues over the years, and I would say the most familiar kind of mistakes that have cropped up which I would recommend you avoid are:

  • Not addressing a problem with an employee as soon as it becomes apparent. Instead of nipping it in the bud it is left alone until it becomes a much bigger problem than it ever needed to be. As we say to our clients, ‘what you permit you promote’; in other words, if you do not address problems you are actually saying it is ‘ok’ to behave in that way.
  • Similar to the above but saying nothing and then ‘losing it’ one day (straw that broke the camel’s back) which causes huge damage to the working relationship.
  • Having a chat with the employee but not being clear enough on what is expected of them, and by when.
  • Failing to offer any training or support that had been promised because the employer was too busy.
  • Never reviewing the person’s performance after that initial chat. If, hopefully, they have improved make sure that you tell them that and recognise it.

Case examples

I’d like to round-off this article with a couple of examples; one of which ended in a dismissal following the successful following of proper procedures, and one where the employer worked hard in a tricky situation to turn a troubled employee into a valued one.

Ideally, with a good recruitment process and a very well monitored probationary period, dismissal should never have to happen. One example I have when this proved necessary was when an employee (a veterinary surgery receptionist) kept failing to complete the ‘end of the day jobs’ which included basic but important tasks such as switching the phone to night service, making sure all PCs were shut down, tidying the waiting area ready for the morning, and preparing the notes for the first few appointments the next day. Although it may seem harsh to dismiss someone for not doing these things, it was not the case that she was sacked the first time she failed to do them!

The employee had been working there for some time and there had been issues with the morning reception team coming in and having to rush through these tasks, resulting in clients arriving to a messy waiting area and vets running late as they did not have the notes to read in advance of the client coming in. To cut a long story short, the actions taken were:

  • Reminding all evening staff of the closing routine and checking they were happy with it and understood it; they all said they were.
  • Creating a checklist that was kept on reception so all evening staff could go through it each time.
  • When it became clear it was one person in particular that was causing the problems, they were spoken to, their understanding checked and asked if there was any problem; none was raised, they just said they forgot.
  • What followed over the next few months was (following their policy) a series of initially informal warnings, then formal warnings, and then unfortunately dismissal. The employee did not appeal.

In my second example, a previously very effective member of staff had become, over time, very negative and his performance had started to drop. It was not noticeable at first, but gradually mistakes kept creeping in and key tasks were not completed. He had been asked a few times by his manager whether he was okay, and the standard answer was ‘Yes, fine’, and this was accepted.

The final straw came when the employee made a mistake that could not be ignored and formal action had to be taken due to health and safety implications. It is possible that the employer could have deemed it gross misconduct and pursued dismissal, but they knew that this was not the employee that had once been a valued member of the team. With some careful questioning and support, it emerged that the employee was having some serious problems at home in his marriage and this was impacting has ability to concentrate at work.

On the day in question he had been given an ultimatum by his wife and he admitted that his mind was not on work. The outcome of the process was that the employee was still given a final written warning on his file, but he was also given lots of support and some counselling paid for by the company. This made him feel really valued at work and the counselling helped him to sort out his issues and also be able to concentrate at work again.

He is now back to full performance levels, and is very loyal to the business because they were loyal to him.

Finally, as ever, don’t forget that Gateway is here to help! If you are dealing with any performance management issues, we can advise you on the best way to handle them. And if you feel you would – or others in your business – need training on how to manage performance so that everyone fulfils their potential and any problems get nipped in the bud, then take a look at our performance management training.


Best wishes,




01536 215240

Emma Wynne Character
Written by:
Emma Wynne
Managing Director