Remediating Employee Performance

Virtually everyone, when looking over their careers, has experienced some sort of performance remediation at some time.  If properly and effectively handled, the action was beneficial.  It’s really all about learning – one actively engages in an activity (or may not), someone notices that the performance could be better, gives feedback and perhaps instructions, and we change the way we perform in a better way.  It helps us grow professionally and personally.  So why is performance remediation so detested and subject to frequent procrastination?

Most managers view the process as a conflict, and most people avoid conflict or deal with it poorly.   The prospect of telling someone that they are not doing something in the best way or not meeting expectations can be unbearable.  Conflict is natural and the process of resolving conflict in a healthy manner helps us grow emotionally and professionally.

The most important aspect of engaging in a disciplinary action is to treat the recipient with respect at all times and to focus on the action as a learning experience that will help the employee’s performance become more valuable to the organization and to themselves personally.  In fact, the word discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, which means teaching and learning, and discipulus, which means student.  So, imagine your employee doing a task incorrectly.  Your first thought is “Wow, here’s an opportunity to help Joe grow professionally and become a better worker!”  You are starting on a positive and upbeat note…don’t lose this mental setting!  Half the challenge is keeping yourself on a positive platform.

My favored way of engaging in performance remediation is using a process coined by Dick Grote as “Discipline without Punishment”.   He differentiates “discipline” into three categories:  building superior performance, coaching and formal disciplinary action.

In the building superior performance stage, concentration is given to getting the employee on track and keeping them on track.  Rule #1, the platinum rule, is to acknowledge good performance.   Since we expect good performance, it often goes without mention, but surveys show that praise is the number one motivator, much more than money.  The flip side is to confront poor performance, or to put it more positively, engage in improvement.  First, consider the expected performance.  Then, verbalize the actual performance, being mindful of an objective presentation.  For example, “You always show up late” is an arguable statement.  “I noticed that you came in fifteen minutes late last Wednesday and Friday” is factual.   The next step is to determine the cause:  is it a deficiency in knowledge or a deficiency in execution?  For a deficiency in knowledge, the action may be formal training, on the job training or job aids, such as process flow charts.  For a deficiency in execution, the action may be removing obstacles, providing feedback or assessing what performance you’re actually incentivizing.  For example, if you’re pushing the number of calls answered in a call center and what you really want is great customer service, you may have to reconsider what the employees’ goals really are.  After an appropriate timeframe, reassess the employee’s improvement.  If there is a positive change, practice the platinum rule:  acknowledge good performance.  If not, move to the second phase:  coaching.

The coaching session requires some preparation.  The desired and actual performance must be defined, the good business reason for the change must be verbalized, the logical consequences must be determined and the subsequent action steps must be formulated. The meeting should be planned with care:  a private setting and a reasonable time.  During the coaching session, get right to the point, but allow time for the employee to be heard; by listening to their side, you will be able to ascertain that your planned action is appropriate.  Next, discuss why the employee must change and get the employee’s agreement to change.  This is important because not many people will default on a commitment.  It’s not only the behavior/performance that is at stake, but also the employee’s word.  The action steps for improvement should be determined and confirmed; it is advisable to have the employee suggest the changes that need to happen – they will have more of a stake in the improvement.  Lastly, agree on the consequences for failure to improve and be committed to enacting them.  After the coaching meeting, be sure to document the discussion and to follow up in a reasonable timeframe.  If the employee improves satisfactorily, apply the platinum rule; otherwise you will need to engage in the formal disciplinary process.

Your organization may have a progressive disciplinary process; be sure to follow it and/or consult with the appropriate official when engaging in formal disciplinary action.  This has become an area for litigation risk.  The Discipline without Punishment model suggests the following steps:

    1.  Oral reminder:  after an oral reminder, check in to see if the situation has improved satisfactorily.  If yes, commend the employee; if no, move on to a written reminder.

    2.  Written reminder:  it is advised that a preprinted memo is not appropriate – it’s intimidating and there’s no room for documenting the discussion at hand.  Instead, have the discussion with the employee and tell him/her that you will document the conversation.  Stress that it’s the employee’s responsibility to remediate the situation, and that they had agreed to do just that.  Probe deeper into the issues.  Gain the employee’s agreement to change.  Let him/her know that this meeting constitutes a written reminder and that you’ll follow up with a memo documenting the discussion, agreement and consequences for failing to remediate.  Here’s what should be included in the memo TO the employee, not ABOUT the employee:

  • Names of all present
  • Date and location
  • The specific problem
  • A record of all previous conversations
  • A detailed statement of the continuing problem
  • A statement that the situation must be corrected (not improved)
  • A statement of the specific change that must be made
  • A statement that failure to correct will lead to further action
  • A statement that in addition to solving the immediate problem, the organization expects the employee to maintain an acceptable level of performance in every area of the job.
  • A record of the agreement made with the employee to correct the problem
  • A record of any action the employee agreed to take to correct the situation
  • A closing statement that expresses the belief that the situation will in fact be corrected.

Meet with the employee later – a tight, focused meeting.  Review the memo.

Should the employee sign?  Legal advice would say “yes”.  Dick Grote feels that you’re telling the employee that they’re a liar and that in fact, most employees will not deny the meeting took place.  Again, follow up:  commend an improvement, move on if there is none.

Step 3:  Decision Making Leave:  when deciding to enact the decision making leave, give some notice and make arrangements for the employee’s absence.  It is advised to pay the employee for the leave.  Why?  Although unpleasant, on an unpaid leave the employee simply “does the time”.  A paid leave sends the message that it is the employee’s duty to really think about a serious change or choose to leave.  Have a preplanned meeting for the employee’s return and ask for their decision.  Document the actions.   As always, follow up.  Commend improvement.  If the situation remains unchanged, move to the final step:  termination.

Step 4:  Termination:  at this point the employee has been given every chance to change.  It is their decision that the termination is enacted.  Dick Grote says “termination is not the final step in a disciplinary process, it is the failed result of a disciplinary process”.  It is wise to consult your organization’s HR representative before moving to a discharge.  Prepare yourself; ask yourself the questions you may face should you face a jury, such as “Did you do everything possible?”, “Was the employee given reasonable time to improve?”, etc.  Have all the necessary paperwork complete (in California, have the final check including unpaid vacation and unemployment information).  Be prepared for anger or tears.  When you meet with the employee, get to the point and hold to your decision.  Afterwards, document the action.  Remember, be respectful no matter what the employee’s response is.

Hopefully, “nipping issues in the bud”, or dealing with performance issues as they come up, will lead to a successful resolution and the employee will be better for it.  A manager’s job is to develop, teach; therefore remediation is a manager’s duty.  Helping your employees develop brings great satisfaction and success to your management career.

Much of the information presented is included in Dick Grote’s “Discipline without Punishment”.  It is a “must have” for anyone managing employees – and “oldie but goodie”.