Looking at the Causes of Substandard Employee Performance

Effective managers engage in ongoing communications with employees about a number of key issues such as management’s expectations, job duties and responsibilities, criteria by which performance is judged, performance measurements, establishing goals and objectives, etc. Effective managers also communicate with employees when they are failing to meet performance standards. All too often, however, even those managers who make the time to assess performance on an ongoing basis (as well as talk with employees when performance falls off) do not take the time to think about what may be causing the performance challenge before trying to effect change.

Every manager has performance management tools from which to choose. These may range from casual conversations with employees alerting them to your concerns, or taking harsher measures such as imposing a warning in writing or discipline under your company’s performance management or discipline policy. Whatever method a manager chooses, managers should not neglect to consider the reason for the performance failure. Oftentimes, the resolution can be far more effective if the underlying cause is understood.

Sometimes, the reason why an employee is not performing well has nothing to do with work and is caused by personal issues. In those cases, while alerting the employee to performance problems is important, delivering discipline can be ineffective because it does not address the cause. For example, an employee who is going through a divorce or whose child is in trouble at school may benefit more from using the company’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program), taking a few days off to deal with what is happening, or simply being able to tell you that he or is she is depressed.

As a manager, it would not be wise for you to ask if the employee is experiencing personal problems. But there is nothing to prevent you, after explaining the performance problems you are seeing, from asking the employee if he or she also sees the same issues and has any ideas about what may be causing the issues. By expressing your concern that the employee’s work performance is falling off and giving him or her a chance to contribute to the conversation about the reasons, you may arrive at a resolution that is different from what you initially decided. It may also end up being far more effective.

What if the employee’s problems are interpersonal issues at work? Perhaps coworkers are giving the employee a hard time and as a result, the employee simply is not producing. Information that his or her performance is suffering is important information for you to share. But asking open questions that may give the employee a chance to tell you about what is going on could be far more beneficial to both of you.

Also, and not too surprisingly, you may find out that the employee feels he or she is being illegally harassed or discriminated against. That’s not to say that the employee is correct. But if the employee feels that way, it is important for you to know so that next steps can be taken. Since many employees may not feel comfortable coming forward with such serious allegations, their work performance sometimes suffers while they struggle with the issues. If you take the time to inquire how the employee is doing and whether there is anything going on that the employee would like to discuss, you may be able to ferret out inappropriate behavior at work that hurts the employee, your department, and the company as a whole.

Are the reasons for poor performance inside or outside the control of the employee? What if the employee is not receiving information from other employees or departments that the employee needs to do his or her job? While the employee can and should be expected to take reasonable steps to address the situation, ultimately the employee cannot force someone else to perform. What if the reason for the problem is personal and has nothing to do with work? You have many tools at your disposal to help the employee, without intruding on the employee’s life.

When you consider various resolutions to performance problems, also consider that the resolution you design may not take into account the cause for the problems. And if you can address the cause, your resolution is likely to be more effective. Speak with your human resources department or legal counsel about appropriate questions you can ask the employee so that when you meet with him or her, you are truly engaging in effective communications.

Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to AllBusiness.com. She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit www.barriegrossconsulting.com to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.

Note: The information here does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.