When Performance Discussions go Horribly Wrong


I recently ran my first ever public workshop on Dealing with Poor Performance. The day after the session, I received this e.mail from one of the attendees.

‘Ann, thank you SO much. I used to be terrified of performance discussions and my employees knew it. I would either avoid them altogether and hope they would go away - which they never did, or I would have the discussion and know I was not making a good job of it and their performance remained the same, or in some cases became worse. After yesterday's session I will never again shy away from talking to my employees. In fact I have already set up appointments to talk to two people safe in the knowledge that I know what to say and how to say it. I also now know that their poor performance is their monkey not mine. Yeah'

During the session we used several recent real-life case studies of performance processes that had gone horribly wrong and ended up in the employment court. Every single case study we looked at, seemed to have had sufficient grounds for dismissal, yet every single case was found in the employee's favour, bringing significant costs to bear on the employer, not to mention the stress and time taken in defending the case. 

For example:

  • Poor performance. A manager was demoted because of poor performance, yet had no written agreement, performance targets were set without any consultation and he was given no real information on exactly where his performance was not up to standard and therefore was given no opportunity to improve. Unjustified dismissal - costs awarded to employee.
  • Serious misconduct. Employee dismissed because of excessive personal use of internet. No evidence of induction or briefing on the company's policy on internet use; widespread practice within the company of sharing computers - could not safely prove that it was this employee. . Unjustified dismissal - costs awarded to employee.
  • Serious misconduct. An employee was dismissed for abusive and intimidating conduct witnessed by a director of the company. The director phoned the worker - told him he was dismissed. The court found that there were sufficient grounds for dismissal, but because no opportunity was given for the employee to put his side of the story, it was classed as unjustified dismissal. Costs awarded to employee.
  • Dismissed for theft. Employee invited to a meeting without warning, told theft had been traced to her, was made to write a confession dictated by the employer. She was invoiced for the supposed thefts and given three months to pay. Intimidatory tactics, unjustified dismissal. Costs awarded to employee.
  • Serious misconduct. Two employees suspended and dismissed for disobedience, dishonesty and using work time and materials for personal use. It was discovered that the workers did spend a lot of time on personal and family issues yet the process used to dismiss them was not that of a fair and just employer. Unjustified dismissal - costs awarded to employees.
  • Racial harassment. Employee had a history of poor attendance and had received a verbal warning. Employer supportive and organized a meeting to discuss employee's circumstances and to work out an action plan. Following week employee took two days off work, second disciplinary meeting held and employee issued with first written warning. Various performance issues occurred after that first warning and finally the employee was dismissed. Employee claimed racial harassment. Racial harassment claim dismissed, but wrongful dismissal granted. It was felt that the various performance issues were not sufficiently serious to warrant dismissal. REINSTATEMENT ORDERED TO FORMER POSITION. Cost awarded to employee.

I'm sure every manager or team leader reading these case studies will relate. Who hasn't had to manage employees with poor attendance habits; or poor time keeping or high sickness levels? It is the 80/20 principle. 20% of our employees are likely to give us 80% of our stress. And then we hear of situations  such as those above, where even though dismissal seems to be justified, the courts throw the cases out and award substantial damages to employees. Is it any wonder that managers tend to shy away from even bothering to deal with performance issues?

Yet it doesn't have to be that way.

Dealing with poor performance is a process. I also believe it is a process aimed at turning our poor performers into great performers. In my own experience, if we:

  • deal with the issues early
  • explain clearly and succinctly what behavior is expected from the employee
  • check for their understanding
  • coach and mentor them through the improvement process

then performance issues rarely need to get the disciplinary stage and we should have great workers as a result.

I do acknowledge that there are some employees who beggar belief, and no matter how many times we talk to them simply never improve. These are the people who WILL end up in the disciplinary process. But the vast majority can be turned around during those early discussions.

And if they choose not to improve - and at the end of the day it is their choice - then you have done everything in your power as a just and fair employer AND you have the documentation which tracks how much time and energy you put into this person, then very few courts will find in favour of the employee.

What the courts look for is procedural correctness and that employees are treated fairly.  

Go well and believe in your people. Most employees DO want to be great performers.



Ann Andrews CSP specialises in working with high performing teams and showing managers how to deal with poor performance.

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