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  • Mark Shaw

Is it poor performance or another problem?

I’ll address the question by sharing a case study, then arguing what I think is the real problem before providing my answer.

The Case Study

While visiting a client recently I was advised by the CEO that an employee with 7 years’ service was no longer performing. The supervisor was called in to discuss the situation and agreed the employee’s performance had been deteriorating for probably two years and had declined fairly dramatically over the past 6 months.

After about 10 minutes discussion my reaction was “this is not poor performance, this is a management problem. Why? Because the person had done the job admirably for 6½ years and in my experience there is something else happening. I.e. he is choosing not to do his job”.

As part of our normal process I was then asked to look into the situation for the CEO. Within 2 hours I had discovered that the employee had been suffering from a serious medical situation for about 2 years. His manager (who had recently resigned) was aware and had made attempts to counsel the employee. However the CEO had never been advised.

With this new perspective, the CEO then spoke to the employee expressing concerns about how his medical condition was now causing a management problem. The employee immediately stopped causing problems and focused on doing his job for about two weeks; then abruptly resigned.

The Real Problem

To me, the real problem has nothing to do with poor performance or an individual’s medical condition. Rather it is that current HR policies, processes and practices do not adequately support managers on those infrequent occasions they experience challenging staffing situations.

Consider how we all get through a range of day-to-day activities ourselves and only need infrequent help when it gets too difficult. I.e.

· If we cut our finger we apply a band aid but see a surgeon if we need a knee reconstruction,

· We put petrol and oil in our car and air in our tyres without help but see a mechanic when it needs a major service

· We do our own dental hygiene every day when we clean and floss our teeth but see a dentist when we need a filling

When it comes to managing staff, we currently expect line managers with backgrounds in accounting, sales, finance etc to do the day-to-day management AND become “HR experts” on those infrequent occasions when things get tough.

In short I’d argue the real problem is current HR policies, procedures and practices unfairly expect line managers to be experts when it comes to every aspect of people management.

My Answer

In my experience the answer is:

1. Accept line managers can and do solve most day-to-day people-problems without HR involvement (and certainly only need simple policy settings)

2. On the infrequent occasion they fail to resolve a really difficult employee-focused problem, HR should help by identifying the management/organisational problem caused by the employee’s unacceptable and ongoing behaviour

3. Now HR can assist the manager solve that problem with a clear goal that the employee is included as part of the solution. (However if, the employee chooses not to be part of the solution then they must exit the organisation without the risk of unfair dismissal)

4. Change your HR policies, processes and practices to reflect the above

Anything less is a disservice to the employee and the organisation.

After almost 20 years of following this approach about 65% of ‘poor performers’ actually turnaround, occasionally with spectacular positive results. About 25% choose to resign and the remaining 10% have their employment terminated. And we have never lost an appeal for unfair dismissal.

A copy of the template we use is available at

I trust this article demonstrates ‘poor performance’ is generally not the problem. Rather I have argued the problem is our inability to recognise when a situation escalates from an employee-centric problem to a management/organisational problem.

The solution is in reviewing our HR policies, procedures and practices to reflect this change in understanding and training HR Practitioners in problem solving techniques.

If I have been successful in this approach for almost 20 years, what is stopping you achieve similar results?

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