The question is – when should you write up your employee for performance issues. And the answer is not too early, but not too late.
OK, OK – before you stop listening – I realize that sounds like a bogus answer. But actually it’s the truth. Lots of leaders don’t move to formalizing their concerns soon enough. They think – well Vicky is so good at the other parts of her job, I don’t want to ding her just for coming to work late.
Well, you and I both know that while the first few times Vicky’s late, you’ll be mildly annoyed, the next few times will make you vary annoyed. And then, before you know it, you’re calling HR and saying you have to fire Vicky right now- today – because she just can’t seem to get to work on time and it’s driving you crazy.
The reason this happens is because every facet of the job, showing up to work on time, taking direction, meeting deadlines, working effectively with the team, communication and interpersonal skills – that’s all part of the job. No matter what the job is, it’s not just the nuts and bolts of logging the bills, or answering the phone, or producing the reports, or running the media campaign. Every job’s responsibilities are more than what shows up on the job’s checklist of duties.
So, if someone isn’t doing all of the job, and doing it well – you as the leader, need to address it. Because it may start out as a mild annoyance – but it’s a real part of the job responsibilities for a reason. It has to happen. So if the person isn’t doing it – it’s a problem. And that lack, will become more and more important as time goes by. Until it’s a huge thing, you’re fed up, and then you want to take immediate action. But in addition to being unfair to the employee, it may get you in some hot water because you don’t have documentation to show you fired them for good cause.
Now before you throw the ‘at will’ thing back at me – you know…we’re an at will state so I can fire someone for any reason or no reason that I want to. I suggest you take a listen to Season 2, Episode 11 entitled – Think You Know At-Will? I Bet You Don’t.
Because – it’s easy to run afoul of wrongful termination guidelines, and more importantly the Covenant of Good Faith Exception. What’s the Covenant of Good Faith Exception? Well, you’ll have to listen to the podcast for details -let’s just suffice to say, you always want to be on the right side of it.
OK, all that is part of the reason you shouldn’t wait too late to move into the warning process. But actually, it’s just as bad if you move too early.
You can easily knock someone off the motivation path by rigidly coming down on them too soon. Maybe they need more training, or maybe you’re asking them to call on a skill they haven’t developed yet. Or maybe they’re so new they’re still in the “I’m new and freaking out” stage. Whatever the reason, you want to be sure to get your feedback to them in a carefully orchestrated way – not too much too soon, and not too little too late.
“…if someone isn’t doing all of the job, and doing it well – you as the leader, need to address it. Because it may start out as a mild annoyance – but it’s a real part of the job responsibilities for a reason. It has to happen. So if the person isn’t doing it – it’s a problem.”
So, how are you supposed to know when and how. Well, I have a 6 point process you can follow:
Back to Vicky and showing up late. Well, the first step is to mention the issue as soon as you see any type of patterns – but depending on the severity of the situation, you should do it in a casual way.
Vicky is late on Monday and then again on Thursday. Mention to her that you see she’s been a bit late a couple of times, it’s important that she is in and ready to work by 9:00am. See, a casual, conversational mention. Virtually stress free. By the way – jot down a note that you spoke to her, list the date and time, and put it in her file. Vicky doesn’t have to sign it – it’s just a record, in case you have to refer to it later.
Now, if Vicky continues to come in late, you move to the next stage which is a more formal discussion. Have her come into your office, sit her down and tell her you’ve noticed that even after you mentioned the other day that it was important to arrive no later than 9, that she has still been late on a few occasions.
While you’re pleased with other aspects of her performance (and here you can mention some of the things she’s doing well); a vital part of the job is to arrive on time. You’re confident that after this discussion she’ll see how important this issue is and there won’t be a need to move to a more formalized process. Again, jot down a note on this meeting with date and time, and put it in her file.
If the issue continues to happen, now you have to move to the more formalized part of the process -what I call the formal warning process. This stage is much more serious because while the goal always is to help the employee improve their performance – if that doesn’t happen, the formal warning process can lead to termination of employment. See, much more serious.
So, if you find yourself having to take this step – the goal here is to make sure that Vicky understands the issue is serious, must be addressed right away, and if it isn’t there are consequences.
Now you’ve done the first 2 steps, casual mention; a sit down discussion – the last 4 steps are part of the formal warning process. And they are – in order; documented warning, documented 2nd warning, final warning and possibly dismissal.
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Let’s take them one at a time. During the documented warning (sometimes called the verbal warning – don’t ask) you’ll complete a warning form that outlines the reason for the corrective action (things such as absenteeism, insubordination, tardiness, refusal to follow instruction…you get the idea). Then you should do a narrative detailing specific situations. There should be a place to write down what action is being taken (additional training, employee will discontinue the behavior etc.) and the expected timeline (you expect improvement in the next 2 week period) etc. Also, you should clearly outline your expectations. One phrase I like to use, and it’s pretty popular among my clients who might be working on a warning process – is immediate and sustained improvement. That’s because it makes it clear that the correction has to happen right now (meaning, you can’t be late anymore), and the new behavior has to be sustained (meaning, you can’t be late in the future either).
And the final section is the signature and counter signature section. You sign, and the employee signs. Now, a lot of times employees may say – well I don’t agree with what’s in the document so I don’t want to sign. That’s fine – first of all, their signature simply certifies that the conversation took place; they’re free to add a written statement to go with it for the file if they wish. And secondly, if they still refuse to sign it, just mark ‘employee refused to sign’ and file the form anyway.
One of the most important things, and the part most people forget, is the follow up. Before you end the meeting, schedule a follow up meeting with the employee to determine their progress. Usually this meeting is something like 2 – 4 weeks out, depending on the problem, your company policies etc. Don’t just say “we’ll meet again in 2 weeks”, that’s too vague – schedule an actual time. And let them know that during that meeting, you’ll discuss their improvement and determine next steps. Just so you know, there are basically 3 possible next steps; they do great so they come out of the warning process; they do poorly so you move them to the next step of the warning process, or there is some improvement but not as much as you’d like to see so you extend their documented warning period.
If they don’t improve, then you can move them to the next phase – the documented 2nd warning. For the most part the process is just like the documented warning, but (and this is important) during this phase you’re specifically going to tell them that if they don’t correct the behavior it will lead to additional disciplinary action, which could include termination of employment. You want them to be clear on how serious things have become. And if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having to actually terminate them – at least they won’t feel completely blindsided.
Again, fill out the form and schedule a follow up meeting.
Now, if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to move forward with the warning process -the next phase is the final warning. I know, sometimes clients say – why so many warning meetings. Can’t we just meet 2 times and it’s done.
Well because, again, the purpose of putting someone through the warning process is to both impress upon them how significant the issue is, and give them ample time to improve. The goal is to retain the employee – the warning process isn’t there just so you can fire someone. And it’s important that you go into it with that mindset. You want them to improve so you can retain them. Finding, hiring and training new team members is expensive and time consuming. It’s almost always best if you can find a way to retain who you have.
So, they didn’t improve – now we are on to the final warning. Again, the meeting and form is similar to the other phases except the message here is ‘failure to improve will result in termination of employment’. And yes, I suggest you use those specific words – because the employee needs to know they’re right on the edge of being let go.
Again, set a timeline for the follow up meeting. And if you don’t see improvement, that may end up being a termination meeting (which is the last phase).
Now fortunately, most people don’t get all the way through this process (although you’d be surprised how many do go through the first couple of stages). Generally once someone knows how serious the issue is to you and the company, then they start taking it seriously too. And that’s a good thing. No one wants to dismiss anyone.
But, if you stick with this process, it will help you avoid moving too soon or too late in fixing performance issues. And that’s a very good thing.