Human Resources News & Insights

Poor performance, bad behavior: Handling 2 very different problem employees

Dealing with problem employees invariably involves one of two issues: Performance or behavior. And your managers need to know how to handle each. Here’s a primer. 

Behavior problems

Performance problems sometimes have a behavior component (a subpar salesperson is chronically late for work, for instance), but behavior problems normally fall into the category of breaking specific company rules.

Most union environments have specific standards for how behavior issues are handled, and although non-union businesses aren’t required to follow a strict protocol in these matters, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the process in strict technical terms.

Here are some of the formal standards of a typical progressive discipline policy in a collective bargaining agreement (CBA):

Did the employee have adequate warning?

Did the employee know – or should he or she have known – that the behavior could result in disciplinary action? Both the company and the manager are responsible for communicating the rules employees are required to follow. If workers aren’t told the rules, they can’t be punished for violating them.

Naturally, there are some actions employees can be expected to understand without being told: Things like drinking on the job, stealing, fighting, insubordination or acting in an unsafe manner are regarded as unacceptable by society in general.

Was the rule that was allegedly broken reasonable?

Written rules usually pass this test. Where some companies run into trouble is when managers issue their own on-the-spot requirements of employees – for example, modifying safety procedures in order to boost production rates.

Did the violation actually occur?

Prior to taking the disciplinary action, did the manager actually make sure the employee violated the rule? Allegations of rule-breaking by co-workers aren’t sufficient to call an employee on the carpet.

Was the investigation fair?

Did the supervisor conduct a thorough investigation of the facts and circumstances before starting the disciplinary process? Did the manager actively seek information, not simply wait for people to volunteer information?

Performance problems

In progressive discipline for behavior problems like rule-breaking or safety violations, the process is comparatively simple: Problem employees need to put a halt to specific behaviors, or suffer the consequences.

Progressive discipline for performance deficiencies, however, is a horse of a different color. The biggest difference: The amount of time and effort managers will need to invest in the process.

Usually, progressive discipline meets performance problems in the form of a “performance improvement plan” – a PIP, as they’re known.

The basic components of a PIP:

  • The “deficiency statement.” This is a rundown of just where the employee’s performance hasn’t been up to standards. Managers should determine if the problem is performance (a lack of mastery of skills or tasks) or a behavior problem (an ability to perform the tasks, but a disruptive presence in the workforce).
  • The overall action plan. This section defines what skills (or behaviors) need improvement and specific duties where improvement’s necessary.
    Also included should be a rundown of any special training that will be provided, either by the manager or other individuals.
  • Specific goals. Most PIPs include both short- and long-term performance targets.
  • The time frame. When does the manager expect to see improvement in the specified areas?
  • Specific measurements. What’s going to be an acceptable standard of improvement?
  • Specific consequences. If the employee’s performance – or disruptive behavior – doesn’t improve within the time limits, what happens next?
  • Feedback sessions. The manager should schedule periodic update sessions during the PIP time frame.
    It’s very difficult for a PIP to be successful if the parties don’t get together regularly to check on how things are going – and make whatever mid-course corrections are needed.

On the record

No surprise here: Documentation is the bedrock on which progressive discipline is built. Managers need to confirm all disciplinary actions – from a memo confirming an initial verbal warning to the final termination decision, if the process gets that far.

Documentation of disciplinary action must be kept in the employee’s personnel file and the employee must receive a copy. If it’s a union shop, the onsite rep should be given the documentation as well.

A disciplinary record should cover three distinct phases:

  • The present. This is a rundown of the issue that’s at the center of the discipline action. It should include specifics of the problem (or offense, if it’s a case of rule-breaking), a breakdown of the problem’s negative effect on the overall operation and disciplinary action being taken as a result of the employee’s actions.
  • The past. This section reviews the problem employee’s work record, outlines any history of related offenses and summarizes previous disciplinary actions taken.
  • The future. This section lays down the expected standard of behavior or performance, how this standard can be achieved and the consequences of continued failure to meet expectations.

All this documentation should be witnessed and signed by the manager and the employee.

To sum up, here’s a general checklist of what disciplinary documentation should include:

  • a description of the performance issue or rule violation
  • an outline of the results of any investigation
  • a description of the discipline being imposed
  • a timeline for meeting the standards outlined by the manager
  • a description of the consequences of not meeting expectations
  • the supervisor’s signature (if it’s a high level of discipline, a second signature such as from the human resource department or another level of management, should be included)
  • the employee’s signature acknowledging that the reasons for discipline have been explained and that he or she has been given an opportunity to respond, and
  • the date.

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