Managing Performance Issues

As you know from reading this book so far, the time and money investment in a new employee is significant. The cost to select, hire, and train a new employee is staggering. But what if that new employee is not working out? This next section will provide some examples of performance issues and examples of processes to handle these types of employee problems.

Types of Performance Issues

One of the most difficult parts of managing others is not when they are doing a great job—it is when they are not doing a good job. In this section, we will address some examples of performance issues and how to handle them.

  1. Constantly late or leaves early. While we know that flexible schedules can provide a work-life balance, managing this flexible schedule is key. Some employees may take advantage, and instead of working at home, perform nonwork-related tasks instead.
  2. Too much time spent doing personal things at work. Most companies have a policy about using a computer or phone for personal use. For most companies, some personal use is acceptable, but it can become a problem if someone does not know where to draw the line.
  3. Inability to handle proprietary information. Many companies handle important client and patient information. The ability to keep this information private for the protection of others is important to the success of the company.
  4. Family issues. Child-care issues, divorce, or other family challenges can cause absenteeism, but also poor work quality. Absenteeism is defined as a habitual pattern of not being at work.
  5. Drug and alcohol abuse. The US Department of Labor says that 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of industrial injury can be linked to alcohol consumption. The US Department of Labor estimates that employees who use substances are 25–30 percent less productive and miss work three times more often than non-abusing employees (US Department of Labor, 2011). Please keep in mind that when we talk about substance abuse, we are talking about not only illegal drugs but prescription drug abuse as well. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that 15.2 million Americans have taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, or sedative for non-medical purposes at least once (Fisher, 2011). Substance abuse can cause obvious problems, such as tardiness, absenteeism, and nonperformance, but it can also result in accidents or other more serious issues.
  6. Non-performing. Sometimes employees are just not performing at their peak. Some causes may include family or personal issues, but frequently it can mean motivational issues or lack of tools and/or ability to do their current job.
  7. Conflicts with management or other employees. While it is normal to have the occasional conflict at work, some employees seem to have more than the average owing to personality issues. Of course, this affects an organization’s productivity.
  8. Theft. The numbers surrounding employee theft are staggering. The American Marketing Association estimates $10 billion in loss annually owing to employee theft, while the FBI estimates up to $150 billion annually1. Obviously, this is a serious employee problem that must be addressed.
  9. Ethical breaches. The most commonly reported ethical breaches by employees include lying, withholding information, abusive behaviour, and misreporting time or hours worked, according to a National Business Ethics study2. Sharing certain proprietary information when it is against company policy and violating noncompete agreements are also considered ethical violations. Many companies also have a fraternization policy that restricts managers from socializing with non-management employees.
  10. Harassment. Engagement of sexual harassment, bullying, or other types of harassment would be considered an issue to be dealt with immediately and, depending on the severity, may result in immediate termination.
  11. Employee conduct outside the workplace. Speaking poorly of the organization on blogs or Facebook is an example of conduct occurring outside the workplace that could violate company policy. Violating specific company policies outside work could also result in termination. For example, in 2010, thirteen Virgin Atlantic employees were fired after posting criticisms about customers and joking about the lack of safety on Virgin airplanes in a public Facebook group (Smith, 2010). In another example, an NFL Indianapolis Colts cheerleader was fired after racy Playboy promotional photos surfaced (before she became a cheerleader) that showed her wearing only body paint (Chandler, 2011).

While certainly not exhaustive, this list provides some insight into the types of problems that may be experienced. As you can see, some of these problems are more serious than others. Some issues may only require a warning, while some may require immediate dismissal. As an HR professional, it is your job to develop policies and procedures for dealing with such problems. Let’s discuss these next.

What Influences Performance?

When an employee is not performing as expected, it can be very disappointing. When you consider the amount of time it takes to recruit, hire, and train someone, it can be disappointing to find that a person has performance issues. Sometimes performance issues can be related to something personal, such as drug or alcohol abuse, but often it is a combination of factors. Some of these factors can be internal while others may be external. Internal factors may include the following:

  1. Career goals are not being met with the job.
  2. There is conflict with other employees or the manager.
  3. The goals or expectations are not in line with the employee’s abilities.
  4. The employee views unfairness in the workplace.
  5. The employee manages time poorly.
  6. The employee is dissatisfied with the job.

Some of the external factors may include the following:

  1. The employee does not have the correct equipment or tools to perform the job.
  2. The job design is incorrect.
  3. External motivation factors are absent.
  4. There is a lack of management support.
  5. The employee’s skills and job are mismatched.

All the internal reasons speak to the importance once again of hiring the right person from the start. The external reasons may be something that can be easily addressed and fixed. Whether the reason is internal or external, performance issues must be handled promptly.

Defining Discipline

If an employee is not meeting the expectations, discipline might need to occur. Discipline is defined as the process that corrects undesirable behaviour. The goal of a discipline process shouldn’t necessarily be to punish but to help the employee meet performance expectations. Often supervisors choose not to apply discipline procedures because they have not documented past employee actions or did not want to take the time to handle the situation. When this occurs, the organization lacks consistency among managers, possibly resulting in motivational issues for other employees and loss of productivity.

To have an effective discipline process, rules and policies need to be in place and communicated so all employees know the expectations. Here are some guidelines on the  creation of rules and organizational policies:

  1. All rules or procedures should be in a written document.
  2. Rules should be related to the safety and productivity of the organization.
  3. Rules should be written clearly, so no ambiguity occurs between different managers.
  4. Supervisors, managers, and human resources should communicate rules clearly in orientation, training, and via other methods.
  5. Rules should be revised periodically as the organization’s needs change.

Of course, there is a balance between too many “rules” and giving employees the freedom to do their work. However, the point of written rules is to maintain consistency. Suppose, for example, you have a manager in operations and a manager in marketing. They both lead with a different style; the operations manager has a more rigid management style, while the marketing manager uses more of a laissez-faire approach. Suppose one employee in each of the areas is constantly late to work. The marketing manager may not do anything about it, while the operations manager may decide each tardy day merits a “write-up,” and after three write-ups, the employee is let go. See how lack of consistency might be a problem? If this employee is let go, he or she might be able to successfully file a lawsuit for wrongful termination, since another employee with the same performance issue was not let go. Wrongful termination means an employer has fired or laid off an employee for illegal reasons, such as violation of discrimination laws or violation of oral and/or written employee agreements. To avoid such situations, a consistent approach to managing employee performance is a crucial part of the human resources job.

The Role of the Performance Appraisal in Discipline

Besides the written rules, each individual job analysis should have rules and policies that apply to that specific job. The performance appraisal is a systematic process to evaluate employees on (at least) an annual basis. The organization’s performance appraisal and general rules and policies should be the tools that measure the employee’s overall performance. If an employee breaks the rules or does not meet the expectations of the performance appraisal, the performance issue model, which we will discuss next, can be used to correct the behaviour.

Performance Issue Model

Because of the variety of performance issues, we will not discuss how to handle each type in detail here. Instead, we present a model that can be used to develop policies around performance, for fairness and consistency.

We can view performance issues in one of five areas. First, the mandated issue is serious and must be addressed immediately. Usually, the mandated issue is one that goes beyond the company and could be a law. Examples of mandated issues might include an employee sharing information that violates privacy laws, not following safety procedures, or engaging in sexual harassment. For example, let’s say a hospital employee posts something on his Facebook page that violates patient privacy. This would be considered a mandated issue (to not violate privacy laws) and could put the hospital in serious trouble. These types of issues need to be handled swiftly. A written policy detailing how this type of issue would be handled is crucial. In the example above, the policy may state that the employee is immediately fired for this type of violation. The policy may also state that this employee is required to go through privacy training again and is given a written warning. Whatever the result, developing a policy on how mandated issues will be handled is important for consistency.

The second performance issue can be called a single incident. Perhaps the employee misspeaks and insults some colleagues or perhaps he or she was over budget or late on a project. These types of incidents are usually best solved with a casual conversation to let the employee know what he or she did was not appropriate. Consider this type of misstep a development opportunity for your employee. Coaching and working with the employee on the issue can be the best way to eliminate the problem before it gets worse.

Figure 7.7. The Process for Handling Performance Issues

The Process for Handling Performance Issues: mandated issue, single incident, behavior pattern, persistent pattern, and disciplinary intervention

Often when single incidents are not immediately corrected, they can evolve into a behaviour pattern, which is our third type of performance issue. This can occur when the employee does not think the incident is a big deal because he has not been corrected before or may not even realize he is doing something wrong. In this case, it is important to talk with the employee and let him know what is expected.

If the employee has been corrected for a behaviour pattern but continues to exhibit the same behaviour, we call this a persistent pattern. Often you see employees correct the problem after an initial discussion but then fall back into old habits. If they do not self-correct, it could be that they do not have the training or the skills to perform the job. In this phase of handling performance issues, it is important to let the employee know that the problem is serious and further action will be taken if it continues. If you believe the employee just does not have the skills or knowledge to perform the job, asking him or her about this could be helpful to getting to the root of the problem as well. If the employee continues to be non-performing, you may consider utilizing the progressive discipline process before initiating an employee separation. However, investigating the performance issue should occur before implementing any sort of discipline. Addressing drug and alcohol issues in the workplace must be managed with care as a drug or alcohol dependency can be considered a disability.

Investigation of Performance Issues

When an employee is having a performance issue, it is often the responsibility of the HR professional to investigate the situation. Training managers on how to document performance issues is the first step in this process. Proper documentation is necessary should the employee need to be terminated later for that performance issue. The documentation should include the following information:

  1. Date of incident
  2. Time of incident
  3. Location (if applicable) of incident
  4. A description of the performance issue
  5. Notes on the discussion with the employee on the performance issue
  6. An improvement plan, if necessary
  7. Next steps, should the employee commit the same infraction
  8. Signatures from both the manager and employee

With this proper documentation, the employee and the manager will clearly know the next steps that will be taken should the employee commit the same infraction in the future. Once the issue has been documented, the manager and employee should meet about the infraction. This type of meeting is called an investigative interview and is used to make sure the employee is fully aware of the discipline issue. This also allows the employee the opportunity to explain his or her side of the story. These types of meetings should always be conducted in private, never in the presence of other employees.

However, in unionized organizations, the employee is entitled to union representation at the investigative interview. This union representation is normally called interest based bargaining, referring to a National Labor Relations Board case that went to the United States Supreme Court in 1975. Recently, Weingarten rights continued to be protected when Alonso and Carus Ironworks were ordered to cease and desist from threatening union representatives who attempted to represent an employee during an investigative interview (National Labor Relations Board, 2011).

Options for Handling Performance Issues

Our last phase of dealing with employee problems would be a disciplinary intervention. Often this is called the progressive discipline process. It refers to a series of steps that take corrective action on non-performance issues. The progressive discipline process is useful if the offence is not serious and does not demand immediate dismissal, such as employee theft. The progressive discipline process should be documented and applied to all employees committing the same offence. The steps in progressive discipline are normally the following:

  1. First offence: Unofficial verbal warning. Counseling and restatement of expectations.
  2. Second offence: Official written warning, documented in employee file.
  3. Third offence: Second official warning. Improvement plan (discussed later) may be developed. Documented in employee file.
  4. Fourth offence: Possible suspension or other punishment, documented in employee file.
  5. Fifth offence: Termination and/or alternative dispute resolution.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Another option in handling disputes, performance issues, and terminations is alternative dispute resolution (ADR). This method can be effective in getting two parties to come to a resolution. In ADR, an unbiased third party looks at the facts in the case and tries to help the parties come to an agreement. In mediation, the third party facilitates the resolution process, but the results of the process are not binding for either party. This is different from arbitration, in which a person reviews the case and makes a resolution or a decision on the situation. The benefits of ADR are lower cost and flexibility, as opposed to taking the issue to court.

Some organizations use a step-review system. In this type of system, the performance issue is reviewed by consecutively higher levels of management, should there be disagreement by the employee in a discipline procedure. Some organizations also implement a peer resolution system. In this type of system, a committee of management and employees is formed to review employee complaints or discipline issues. In this situation, the peer review system normally involves the peer group reviewing the documentation and rendering a decision. Another type of ADR is called the ombudsman system. In this system, a person is selected (or elected) to be the designated individual for employees to go to should they have a complaint or an issue with a discipline procedure. In this situation, the ombudsman utilizes problem-solving approaches to resolve the issue. For example, at National Geographic Traveler Magazine an ombudsman handles employee complaints and issues and also customer complaints about travel companies.

Employee Separation

Employee separation can occur in any of these scenarios. First, the employee resigns and decides to leave the organization. Second, the employee is terminated for one or more of the performance issues listed previously. Lastly, absconding is when the employee leaves the organization without resigning and following the normal process. For example, if an employee simply stops showing up to work without notifying anyone of his or her departure, this would be considered absconding. Employee separation costs can be expensive. For example, in the second quarter of 2011, Halliburton reported $8 million in employee separation costs (Lemaire, 2011).

Employee Separations and Layoffs

Resignation means the employee chooses to leave the organization. First, if an employee resigns, normally he or she will provide the manager with a formal resignation written notification – letter or e-mail. Then the HR professional usually schedules an exit interview, which can consist of an informal confidential discussion as to why the employee is leaving the organization. If HR thinks the issue or reasons for leaving can be fixed, he or she may discuss with the manager if the resignation will be accepted. Assuming the resignation is accepted, the employee will work with the manager to determine a plan for his or her workload. Some managers may prefer the employee leave right away and will redistribute the workload. For some jobs, it may make sense for the employee to finish the current project and then depart. This will vary from job to job, but two weeks’ notice is normally the standard time for resignations.

If it is determined that an employee should be terminated, different steps would be taken then in a resignation situation. First, documentation is necessary, which should have occurred in the progressive discipline process. Performance appraisals, performance improvement plans, and any other performance warnings the employee received should be readily available before meeting with the employee. It should be noted that the reliability and validity of performance appraisals should be checked before dismissing an employee based upon them. Questionable performance appraisals come from the real-world conditions common to rating situations, particularly because of limitations in the abilities of the raters (Weekley, 1989).

Remember that if the discipline process is followed as previously outlined, a termination for nonperformance should never be a surprise to an employee. Normally, the manager and HR manager would meet with the employee to deliver the news. It should be delivered with compassion but be direct and to the point. Depending on previous contracts, the employee may be entitled to a severance package. A severance package can include pay, benefits, or other compensation for which an employee is entitled when they leave the organization. The purpose of a severance plan is to assist the employee while he or she seeks other employment. The HR professional normally develops this type of package in conjunction with the manager. Some considerations in developing a severance package (preferably before anyone is terminated) might include the following:

  1. How the severance will be paid (i.e., lump sum or in x equal increments)
  2. Which situations will pay a severance package and which will not. For example, if an employee is terminated for violation of a sexual harassment policy, is a severance still paid?
  3. A formula for how severance will be paid, based on work group, years with the organization, etc.
  4. Legal documents, such as legal releases and noncompete agreements
  5. How accrued vacation and/or sick leave will be paid, if at all

The last topic that we should discuss in this section is the case of an absconded employee. If an employee stops showing up to work, a good effort to contact this person should be the first priority. If after three days this person has not been reachable and has not contacted the company, it would be prudent to stop pay and seek legal help to recover any company items he or she has, such as laptops or parking passes.

Sometimes rather than dealing with individual performance issues and/or terminations, we find ourselves having to perform layoffs of several to hundreds of employees. Let us address your role in this process next.

Rightsizing and Layoffs

Rightsizing refers to the process of reducing the total size of employees to ultimately save on costs. Downsizing ultimately means the same thing as rightsizing, but the usage of the word has changed, in that rightsizing seems to better define the organization’s goals, which would be to reduce staff to save money, or rightsize. When a company decides to rightsize and, ultimately, engage in layoffs, some aspects should be considered.

First, is the downturn temporary? There is nothing worse than laying people off, only to find that as business increases, you need to hire again. Second, has the organization looked at other ways to cut expenses? Perhaps cutting expenses in other areas would be advisable before choosing to lay people off. Finally, consideration should be given to offering temporary sabbaticals, voluntary retirement, or changing from a full- to a part-time position. Some employees may even be willing to take a temporary pay cut to reduce costs. Organizations find they can still keep good people by looking at some alternatives that may work for the employee and the organization, even on a temporary basis.

If the company has decided the only way to reduce costs is to cut full-time employees, this is often where HR should be directly involved to ensure legal and ethical guidelines are met. Articulating the reasons for layoffs and establishing a formalized approach to layoffs is the first consideration. Before it is decided who should get cut, criteria should be developed on how these decisions will be made. Similar to how selection criteria might be developed, the development of criteria that determines which jobs will be cut makes the process of cutting more fair, albeit still difficult. Establishing the criteria ahead of time can also help avoid managers’ trying to “save” certain people from their own departments. After the development of criteria, the next phase would be to sit down with management and decide who does or does not meet the criteria and who will be laid off. At this point, before the layoffs happen, it makes sense to discuss severance packages. Usually, when an employee signs for a severance package, the employee should also sign a form (the legal department can help with this) that releases the organization from all future claims made by the employee.

After criteria has been developed, people have been selected, and severance packages determined, it is key to have a solid communication plan as to how the layoffs will be announced. Usually, this involves an initial e-mail to all employees, letting them know of impending layoffs. Speak with each employee separately, then announce which positions were eliminated. The important thing to remember during layoffs is to keep your employees’ dignity; they did not do anything wrong to lose their job—it was just a result of circumstances.


Chandler, R., “Ex-Colts Cheerleader Sues Team Over Dismissal for Playboy Pics,” NBC Sports, May 11, 2011, accessed August 1, 2011,

Evans, J., “EEOC Finds Fault with Company’s No Fault Attendance Plan,” Zanesville Times, July 17, 2011, accessed August 1, 2011,

Fisher, B., “Targeting Prescription Drug Abuse,” Ventura County Star, March 6, 2011, accessed March 8, 2011,

Lemaire, B., “Halliburton Posts 54% Q2 Growth,” Proactive Investors, July 18, 2011, accessed August 1, 2011,

National Labor Relations Board website, “Administrative Law Judge Orders San Juan Company to Respect Employee Weingarten Rights,” March 28, 2011, accessed August 17, 2011.

Smith, C., “Fired Over Facebook,” Huffington Post, July 2010, accessed August 1, 2011,

United States Department of Labor, “General Workplace Impact,” 2011, accessed March 8, 2011, and-small-businesses-employ-more-drug-users-but-drug-test-less/.

Weekley, J., Academy of Management Journal 32, no. 1 (1989): 213–22.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Human Resources Management - 2nd Ontario Edition Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Cameron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book