Performance-related problems often come knocking on HR’s door.

A manager has lost patience with an employee’s consistent lateness and wants HR to invoke the formal disciplinary procedure. A sales consultant has started to miss targets and the manager thinks they should go. An employee is struggling to get to grips with a new way of working and the team is calling for them to be removed. A maverick in the department is winding everyone up, and the general opinion is that they can’t be allowed to stay.

Everyone is looking to HR for a solution – but in reality, none of these scenarios are likely to be as simple as they may appear on the surface. So what can HR do to help managers get to the root of performance issues, and get their teams working effectively.

1. Gather evidence

Although some organisations have people who want to get away with doing as little as possible, most employees actively want to do a good job, support their colleagues and get ahead with their career. Poor performance is rarely as simple as someone being incompetent or unwilling to do what they are told. If HR are asked to step in, they need to dig deep to try and establish what’s at the root of a performance issue. Not all managers see the situation as clearly as they might think they do. Talking through specific examples of poor performance, or what poor performance looks like, with the manager is a critical first step to getting to the root of the issue – and provides you with a firm foundation to “speak truth to power” should you need to.

Does a manager who is exasperated with one of their team have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved for example? Have they talked to the employee about their concerns? What steps have they taken to try to address the problem – and, possibly most importantly of all, is it documented? Employment legislation around dismissal is a minefield, and HR needs to make sure it is not just fully versed with the facts, but also aware of the nuances of the situation, before deciding how best to proceed.

Graphic showing work attitude capability behaviour


Aspects of Performance Source IES

2. Try informal approaches first

There is often an expectation from managers that if they take a performance-related issue to HR, the next step will be at the very least, some kind of disciplinary process. But although these procedures of course have their place, they are not always the best (or only) solution. Formal procedures often have the effect of plunging people into divisive and damaging conflict. They create a ‘he said, she said’ situation, which makes it very difficult for any kind of working relationship to be restored and can have ramifications on working relationships across the company.

It’s important to ensure that managers understand both the process and the potential outcomes of following this path. Often, simply getting people sitting down across the table and facilitating an open, face-to-face dialogue can help to bottom issues out. It’s quite possible, for example, that a training or performance improvement plan would help to get things back on track. So many performance related problems turn out to be down to misunderstandings about what’s expected, lack of training or poor communication – all issues that can be sorted out without recourse to the law.

3. Build manager competence

It’s often automatically assumed by the top team that because people have been put in charge of a team, they will already be equipped with the skills to manage people effectively. You’ll know this isn’t always the case – particularly with people who have been promoted because of their specialist or technical expertise and may have very little understanding of how to get the best performance out of people. Bad performance hurts the bottom line, so it is important to make the case for additional investment in training. The key areas where managers often need support are setting goals, delegating effectively, overcoming bias and having challenging but constructive conversations with their team. HR can help by making sure these subjects are covered in management development programmes or by offering coaching or mentoring to all managers – not just those who feel they need support.

4. Turn the conversation around

Discussions about performance often focus on pointing out where people have gone wrong and what they could do better. The evidence suggests that celebrating employee success – and finding ways to build on people’s strengths and designing jobs that reflect those strengths – is a much better way to raise performance. Naturally, it is important not to ignore poor performance, but HR has a role in encouraging managers to take a balanced stance – shifting the emphasis to what their people are really good at and how they can do more of it, rather than wasting time trying to ‘shoehorn’ them into situations they will probably never excel at. If managers are used to taking a remedial approach to appraisals, it may take some time to shift their mindset, but they will soon be swayed once they start to see the results of a more positive approach.

5. Revisit performance reviews

Performance reviews ought to be when goals are agreed, great work acknowledged, and issues – if they exist – openly discussed. However, HR consultants regularly report that line managers struggle with how best to give negative feedback and, when it comes to formally recording the information, are reluctant to put it in writing. This gives you, and your business, a challenge if you do need to take action to discipline or dismiss a poor performing employee.

Check boxes with faces

Including specific questions designed to help uncover poor performance, with appropriate guidance on how to frame questions and deal with objections, can help managers record the information in the right way. For example, if an employee is persistently late, that should be recorded, alongside the evidence. The employee then has the chance to challenge, or explain, their time-keeping issues and agreed next steps can be recorded.

An HR software system can do much to make performance management processes consistent and transparent. Standardised questions for all employees help remove the perception of unfairness, automated reminders ensure reviews get completed, and a record of what’s been discussed and agreed is easily accessible to HR, managers and their direct reports, improving transparency and accountability across the business.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.