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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Addressing work performance at an individual level
Article Type: Rewards From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 10, Issue 2
Short case studies and research papers that demonstrate best practice in rewards
Poor work performance is a subject of complaint raised far more often than misconduct. On the whole, it is far less well addressed too. It is important to do so because an under-performing employee can cause an organization to work inefficiently and lose money. The question to ask is this: Are all of my staff meeting all of my reasonable standards most of the time? If not there is work to do.
Causes of poor work performance include:
Poor systems of work, policies or procedures that do not encourage efficient or effective work.
Tools and equipment that do not work properly or frequently break down.
Poor quality supervision and/or support.
Lack of understanding on the employee’s part about job duties, priorities or goals.
Unrealistic targets or deadlines.
Poor working relationships.
Bullying or harassment.
Physical or mental ill health, for example, where the employee’s state of health, or medication taken to deal with it, is causing tiredness.
Manufacturing site experiences poor performer
Some years ago, FCC (Europe) sought advice from Russell HR Consulting to address a poor performance issue. The company, which assembles clutches for motorbikes and is an English subsidiary of a large Japanese manufacturer, had very high quality standards and staff turnover of 0 percent.
Simon (not his real name) had worked with the company for seven years. He was a fully trained production operative and had worked on a manufacturing assembly line for several years, producing acceptable work. Over time, there were a number of reorganizations and Simon ended up doing a slightly different role. Mistakes came to light and on investigation it became apparent that other members of his team had been masking his performance.
The department manager, Graham Wellings noticed that Simon’s productivity was very poor and he made a high number of mistakes. For example, he missed parts out in assembly and then didn’t notice the mistake during the quality check process. He also tended to procrastinate. Wellings and the manager responsible for HR issues, Trevor Norgett, gave Simon informal guidance on several occasions. As a first step they agreed a performance improvement plan (PIP), setting down precise performance targets that were capable of being measured.
Taking a joint approach to improvement
Wellings felt that Simon would respond best to raising the bar little by little, so he suggested targets that could be increased incrementally. Together they wrote down the levels of performance that Simon was required to achieve and the time limit within which the targets should be met. To help Simon, Wellings gave comprehensive guidance and examples of what would constitute success. Creating the PIP was a two-way process and Simon’s input was sought and included.
They met weekly over a three-month period to review progress. Where Simon had made some improvements, Wellings gave accurate and targeted feedback to encourage him. However, even after agreeing the PIP Simon repeated mistakes, sometimes several times in one day. It was very frustrating and Wellings was mystified as to why a fully trained operative was making such basic mistakes. Simon himself gave no indication as to the nature of the problem.
Wellings consulted with Norgett as to the next steps. He contemplated invoking the disciplinary process on grounds of capability, but before deciding what action to take, he investigated further to try to find out why Simon was behaving in this manner. He considered the following:
Was Simon de-motivated? If so, why?
The role could be very routine or repetitive. Could it be enhanced or rotated?
Did Simon have any personal problems that were affecting him?
Were there any conflict issues that could be impacting on his work?
Persevering with investigations
Considering factors such as these can help to decide the best way to tackle the problem. The two managers interviewed Simon together on a number of occasions. During the first meeting to investigate the cause of Simon’s mistakes, Wellings asked: “What do you see as the problem?” and Simon replied: “Maybe rushing and losing concentration.” This was somewhat surprising since Simon’s normal rate of activity tended towards the slow.
In response to Wellings’ concern that Simon looked very pale and tired sometimes, Simon said that he went to bed at about 11 p.m. most evenings, but woke up in the night unable to sleep. He told Wellings that he was tired all the time. Wellings asked what was causing Simon to worry and he replied that he worried about the mistakes he had made at work.
When Norgett questioned Simon about taking medical advice, he replied that he had not. The investigation process continued over a period of time and the full facts only emerged after several meetings. At the first meeting Simon admitted that he felt tired a lot of the time. Later he said he thought he only slept about two to three hours a night and that was impacting on his ability to concentrate. Simon agreed to see his doctor, but there was no improvement in his performance. The feedback from Simon was that although he had been to see his GP, the doctor was reluctant to prescribe sleeping tablets because of a potential addiction problem. However, the doctor suggested that Simon have blood tests to try to discover the root cause of the problem.
Safety concerns linked to under-performance
Wellings and Norgett were particularly concerned by Simon’s admission of ongoing tiredness. Not only might he walk in front of a forklift in the factory, he might make an unsafe clutch. Although stringent quality checks were in place, the company did not want to take the risk of allowing a faulty clutch to be dispatched. During this period Wellings worked closely with Simon and spent time observing him to see what he could do to support him. Further questioning by Norgett brought forth the information that Simon was addicted to Solpadeine and medication he took for epilepsy. He had already been questioned about medication at an earlier meeting, but he had told Norgett that he was not taking any. At this fairly late stage, it seemed that there was some sort of issue.
The company agreed with Simon to refer him to their occupational health advisor (OHA). The OHA carried out tests and confirmed that Simon was Solpadeine dependent. Behavioral therapy was recommended to help him overcome his dependency. The company discussed this with Simon and encouraged him to explore the possibility.
It also made a number of adjustments in the work environment to enable Simon to continue working on site and to preserve the safety of its working practices. By agreement Simon was moved away from the production line into the stores. The work there was fairly limited and restricted the scope for error. Wellings continued to review his work, but Simon worked on a day-to-day basis with another employee who checked that the work that he did was accurate.
Overcoming the hurdles and avoiding dismissal
It took a long time to resolve the problem and there were times when we did think that we might have to dismiss him for poor performance. However, we persevered and our efforts were rewarded. Simon was never going to be one of the assembly line superstars, but with time, considerable research, patience and adjustments, we were able to help him overcome his difficulties sufficiently to allow him to continue.
Managing Simon through the capability process was costly, especially in management time. It took several meetings with the two managers, monitoring and regular one-to-one feedback with Wellings, advice from Russell HR Consulting and a medical opinion from occupational health. HR provides a business service to help employers operate at their optimum. That said, the law is not always very business-like and the reasonable employer will always have to walk the extra mile to support its employees or face the extremely expensive consequences. Employers are under a very clear duty (and rightly so) to behave reasonably and comply with the relevant legislation. There is also a responsibility to behave ethically.
A final consideration was that the workers at FCC were a fairly tightly knit group. A failure to properly explore the issues and give Simon an opportunity to improve would have created unrest, which might ultimately have manifested itself in productivity problems. By taking the steps we did, the company enabled Simon to achieve and maintain an acceptable level of performance, which in turn contributed to the bottom line.
The risk of disability discrimination and/or unfair dismissal claims was minimized, though if FCC had been required to dismiss, it could have done so in the knowledge that a fair process was rigorously adhered to, evidence was meticulously gathered and any challenge from Simon would have been highly defensible. Perhaps the greatest benefit to the company came from the continuity in morale and productivity from the team and, of course, Simon only needed the lightest of management touches to keep his performance level up-to-speed.
Kate Russell and Trevor NorgettKate Russell runs Russell HR Consulting and Trevor Norgett is based at FCC (Europe).
About the authors
Kate Russell heads up Russell HR Consulting. She is an employment law expert and author of a number of HR titles, including her latest release, How to Get Top Marks in … Managing Poor Work Performance, the first in a series of “How to … ” books. A qualified barrister, she worked in industry in operations and later as an HR advisor and trainer, before setting up the business. She leads a team of skilled HR professionals, whose specialist fields include TUPE, change management, talent management, pay and benefits and conflict resolution. Kate Russell can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Trevor Norgett studied catering at Chichester College. Working life began at the Connaught Rooms, then The Savoy Group Management Training program, followed by Post Office Catering London Region in the early 1980s where he worked as a catering manager. He then moved into a management training role for the London region. Later he took roles in both Toby Restaurants and Beefeater Steakhouses as training manager and eventually moved to become regional personnel and training manager with Haven Holidays. In the late 1990s Norgett joined FCC (Europe) Ltd as administration manager, with responsibility for a staff of nearly 50 people. Trevor Norgett can be contacted at: email@example.com