During a training course learners advised me that in the past 10 years less than three employees had been dismissed from their company for poor performance. The business employed over 600 people, a great number of whom perform skilled and semi-skilled jobs.
I asked whether, in their opinion, all employees were giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. “Oh no!” they replied. “We have our fair share of loafers. It just that the really bad ones usually get themselves fired for misconduct before they can be fired for poor performance!”
This situation is not unusual. Most businesses have their share of employees who are poor performers but there are very few dismissals for poor performance. Why is this? Some will be quick to point to the current labour laws. They would be wrong!
Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act clearly sets out the procedure that an employer must follow in order to dismiss an employee for poor performance. Follow the provisions of the Act and no commissioner will overturn the dismissal.
No, the problem is much deeper. It lies in the way that managers and supervisors view performance.
Way back in the 1970’s, the international company I worked for had a sophisticated management appraisal system. In spite of the system allowing for five rating categories, the vast majority of managers (over 200 were employed in South Africa) were rated as ‘Good’. Less than 20% were rated as ‘Excellent’ (no South Africans were as ‘Outstanding’). Less than 5% were rated as ‘Satisfactory’ and not one of the 200 managers was rated as ‘Unsatisfactory’.
Although it was common knowledge that certain managers in the company were ‘useless’, they still received ‘Good’ ratings and annual pay increases every year!
That was long before anyone thought of a Labour Relations Act!
There is perception that when you are considering dismissal for poor performance, you are dealing with a ‘no fault’ dismissal. Whilst, in case of new appointments, there might be a degree of ‘no fault’, this is not so in the majority of cases. Employers must stop tolerating poor performance – be it the operator who fails to make his targets or the manager who tolerates his poor performance!
Under common law, by accepting employment, an employee undertakes to ‘perform his duties in a satisfactory manner to an acceptable standard’. By rendering unacceptable performance, the employee is in breach of his common law duty, just as much as an employee who commits misconduct.
It is important to recognise that employee performance can deteriorate for a number of reasons. Ill health is one and related to this is alcohol and substance abuse. Excessive gambling, marital and family problems, emotional and physical abuse, relationship problems and poor management of personal finances all can lead to poor work performance
Poor performance seldom occurs in isolation. Usually poor performance is accompanied by a pattern of absence, increased sick leave and behavioural changes such as poor timekeeping and moodiness. Typically, over a long period of time, sometimes even years, an employee may accumulate a number of unrelated disciplinary warnings for poor performance, absenteeism and/or minor forms of misconduct.
These expire over time so a case for dismissal does not arise. As a result, the employee becomes unpopular with his supervisors who feel powerless to deal with him. When departmental re-organisation occurs, the employee is likely to be the first on the transfer list.
The cycle will then begin again in his new department until the employee eventually commits a serious transgression and is required to face a disciplinary enquiry. Whilst a case for dismissal may exist, if during the enquiry, the employee asks for help to address substance abuse or a personal problem, most chairpersons will be inclined to give him another chance.
However, if the employee is not genuinely committed to addressing his problems and is merely seeking an excuse to save his job, he is unlikely to change his ways. All that will happen is that the employee will repeat the cycle again, leaving his supervisors even more confused and frustrated!
It is very important therefore to deal with poor performance effectively when it first becomes apparent. In the case of new appointments, the job incumbent should be given proper coaching, training and guidance, his performance should closely be monitored and he should be given regular feedback. Some might say that this is all very well, but managers are busy people and somehow other priorities seem to get in the way.
That is true but a self-directed on-job induction system such as provided in our Generic Induction programme can be very effective in getting around this problem.
This system maps out clear learning objectives for the incumbent and it tells him where and from whom he needs to get information. Most importantly it places the onus on the incumbent to ensure he receives all the information he needs to do his or her job. At the conclusion of the mapped out induction period, the incumbent will either do a test or prepare a status report on his or her job.
If the incumbent fails the test, does not submit the status report on time or it is unsatisfactory, ‘alarm bells’ should begin ringing. If the system is set up in such a way that the report has to be sighted by a number of people (e.g. a director, HR manager, training manager) pressure will be brought to bear on the manager to establish why the incumbent is ‘not coming up to scratch’.
In these circumstances, the guidelines in Schedule 8 of the Code for dealing with poor performance must be applied and proper records kept of counselling and training and of any warnings.
A point of caution, in terms of the Code, the employer is required to establish reasonable work standards and make these known to the employee. This is not as simple as it sounds. One has to first establish exactly what the employee is expected to do. A number of methods can be used to determine this.
In production activities, work study methods can be used to establish work standards and targets but for other jobs this is not so clear cut. Job descriptions which detail key performance areas, personal objectives and performance targets are all measures against which an employee’s performance can be measured.
Work standards set by other employees in similar jobs and of course, the past performance of a job incumbent himself are also measures against which current performance can be measured.
In the case of employees whose performance gradually deteriorates over time, invariably other factors are also involved. For example, personality clashes, substance abuse and personal problems might all contribute to an employee’s poor performance.
In some cases the cause of the perceived poor performance may be due to misunderstandings, poor communication and factors outside of the employee’s control (i.e. the employee is not at fault). The supervisor or manager investigating poor performance needs to not only address the perceived poor performance but also establish the causes thereof.
It is important to establish whether the employee CAN’T or WON’T do what is required. It is necessary to make this distinction because if the employee is able, but chooses not to comply with requirements, this is MISCONDUCT and should be treated accordingly.
Where poor performance is accompanied by increased sick leave, absenteeism and other negative conduct, the employee should be sent for a medical examination by an occupational health practitioner. He or she might be suffering from an illness without being aware of it.
Where the medical evaluation reveals that there is nothing physically wrong with the employee, then the employee should be offered professional counselling – a personal problem or substance abuse might be behind the employee’s deteriorating performance. Who pays for this? Well the cost of a medical evaluation and one or two counselling sessions be a lot less than those involved in a dismissal, especially one that is contested and lost!
Should the employee refuse to undergo a medical or to attend counselling or fail to comply with rehabilitative treatment, the employee should be issued with a ‘Final Counselling’ letter. This letter should set out the standard of performance expected and outline any rules that the employee has transgressed. It should make note of the fact that the employee has been offered but has refused help and it should make it clear that should the employee continue to fail to comply with requirements his services could be terminated.
It goes without saying that should the employee be a union member, his shop steward should be involved at every stage of the process.
The employee’s performance and conduct should be closely monitored and should the employee continue to fail to comply with requirements a disciplinary enquiry/ performance interview leading to termination should be initiated.
Our experience is that one can only help an individual who is prepared to address his own shortcomings. If an employee is not prepared to cooperate, the sooner his services are terminated the better for everyone concerned. This includes the employee himself as it may serve as a ‘wake–up call’ to seek help if he is abusing substances. If the employee is simply ‘a square peg in a round hole’, then he or she will be better off finding more suitable work in a different environment to which he is better suited.