Dealing with Poor Performance Proactively

Posted in : Webinar Recordings on 8 May 2019
Caroline Reidy
The HR Suite
Issues covered:

This article contains a recording and transcript of part 1 (13 March 2019) and part 2 (8 May 2019) of our Dealing with Poor Performance Proactively webinars in partnership with Caroline McEnery.

The aim of performance management is to continually improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your organisation. Sometimes, however, an employee will not be performing to the expected level, hopefully a proactive approach will be enough to turn the employee’s performance around to better meet the needs of the business

Caroline discusses how to proactively approach performance management with employees, and provides some takeaway tips and advice on how to best to handle poor performance. 

Important areas include:

  • What is performance management?
  • Why should my organisation conduct performance appraisals?
  • Objectives and benefits of performance management
  • Aims of probation & benefits
  • Performance management meetings – what to know before the meeting, during the meeting and after the meeting
  • Performance management & feedback
  • Support Mechanisms

Part One


Lynsey: Good morning everyone. My name is Lynsey Rainey. I'm from Legal-Island. I'm here with Caroline McEnery, who's managing director at The HR Suite. And we're here live for the next 30 minutes to continue our HR webinar series with a discussion on dealing with poor performance proactively.

We're going to focus on the main points that you'll see on the slide coming up, and hopefully we'll get some questions through the chat box. There's a chat box in the top right-hand corner of your screen. As you're listening in, you can send in your questions. Time permitting, we'll ask Caroline for her thoughts on those questions. Everything will, of course, be kept anonymous.

We are just going to give things a few more moments while a few more listeners join us. So we're well up into nearly 100 listeners already. This is a very popular subject this morning.

So we're running a series of HR-focussed webinars in association with The HR Suite, and the webinars are broadcast live, recorded, and then transcribed to go on the Legal-Island website. So if you're an Irish Employment Law Hub subscriber, you can listen back to the webinar at a later time and you can catch up on the webinars that we have done so far, which include subjects such as workplace investigations, dismissals, probation management, and handling grief in the workplace.

So Caroline and I will be back with you on the 26th of June for the next webinar in the series. If you have any topics you'd like to hear from Caroline, then you can send me an email on

So let's start, firstly, by welcoming Caroline McEnery from The HR Suite. Good morning, Caroline.

Caroline: Good morning, Lynsey. Delighted to be here.

Lynsey: Yes, me too, Caroline. I can't believe the last one we did was before Christmas, so the time is flying past.

Caroline: Indeed it is.

Lynsey: So we choose topics for these webinars, Caroline, I think we are going to be useful for listeners and we try to give them some tips and advice, you know, to take away. So for this one, we've chosen dealing with poor performance proactively. Why do you think this is a topical subject that people want to hear about?

Why dealing with poor performance is such a topical subject?

Caroline: I suppose what we find is that a lot of people now, we have full employment, and it's really hard to get good people. And a lot of people are doing one of two things.

One is they're trying to improve the performance of employees they have at the moment to bring them to a more acceptable level because they're saying, "Well, look, we have Johnny employed and it's better to have Johnny than to have nobody in the role because we can't replace the role".

Or second of all, we're finding that a lot of people are willing to accept unacceptable because of the full employment market. And I suppose, for me, accepting unacceptable is not really an option. The department manager might be saying, "Listen, we need the person. You know, we'll accept it. It'll be fine", but it's the standard you're setting for everybody else within the team and the implication that has and the ripple effect that has.

So we're finding that performance has always been an issue and we're often dealing with the symptoms of poor performance, which might be presenteeism, when somebody is present at work, but they're not contributing to the standard that we need them to. We have issues around absenteeism, so if somebody starts a performance improvement plan, for example. We have somebody who goes out sick. We have issues with people's attendance. We have issues with, you know, people's attitudes, etc. So there are so many causes that actually impact poor performance.

It's an area that very few organisations don't have to manage, and if we remember the bell curve of performance, it reminds us that we generally have 10% of the workforce that are superstars, that we're absolutely delighted with their performance. They're performing beyond the expectations. Their behaviour, their value add, etc., is at a very high standard.

But we also know in the bell curve of performance we have 10% of the workforce that are poor performers, and if we're not doing performance management with the poor performers, the 80% in the middle that are good fall more towards poor rather than more towards the superstars.

So performance management is something that in many forms . . . sometimes people think performance management is doing an annual review or, you know, a formal process like that. But for me, it's a lot more proactive than that and it's a lot more . . . you know, there are a lot more interventions required rather than just waiting for annual performance reviews.

Lynsey: Yeah. So I suppose that leads us on then to the first point that we're going to cover. What is performance management?

What is performance management?

Caroline: So for me, I suppose performance management is ensuring that, first of all, the employee is very clear on the expectations the organisation has for them in their role, and that they perform that role to the required standard of job competence and behavioural standards required.

Because for me, a lot of the time, I always say psychic management doesn't work. And what I mean by that is a lot of people will say, "Caroline knows what I expect from her". And I will say, "How does Caroline know? Have you given her a clear job description, or have you gone through the core values, or have you very clear policies in relation to code of conduct in your staff handbook?" And that might be very grey.

And some companies will say to me, "Well, look, we don't want to make things too formal. We have a very informal relationship. We don't want to formalise things with policies, you know, or clarity around the job description. We want to keep it loose". But unfortunately that brings unclear expectations where the manager might be expecting a set standard, and the employee might have a different expectation.

And you often see, for example, with graduates who might be, you know, adjusting into the work environment and they consider the guidelines that might be expected in that organisation to be flexible, you know, around, for example, time and attendance, and dress code, and things like that.

So if your organisation has specific standards that you want from your employees, it's really important that the first step is that we have very clear expectations outlined not just in relation to the specifics associated with the job role, but also in relation to the behaviours that we consider to be acceptable or absolutely unacceptable in the work environment.

Because more and more, we're finding when we go back to ask, "Where did we set that standard for the personnel? Where did we make it clear for that person?" we're identifying that that actually wasn't done from the outset. So that will be the very first starting point, to make sure that we have that clarity for everybody.

Lynsey: Okay. Great. And why should my organisation conduct performance appraisals? It's a key question for a lot of people, I guess.

Should organisations conduct performance appraisals?

Caroline: Yeah, and I suppose I'm in favour of doing performance appraisals. But I often think that performance appraisals are nearly like the . . . they're the kind of excuse that, "Look, we wait until the performance appraisal, and we talk to them about that unacceptable performance then". Rather than, for me, performance appraisal needs to be a snapshot of the previous period of time you're reviewing rather than the previous week or the previous month before you meet them.

And it definitely shouldn't have any new surprises in it because performance reviews are brilliant. They're a formal opportunity for you to assess the person's contribution to the role and to the overall organisation and give them career opportunities, discuss their career plan and their progression, training gaps, etc. But there should be no surprises in that.

If there's been an issue, whether that's a breach of policy, a customer complaint, something that you weren't happy about, that should be nipped in the bud and addressed at the time rather than waiting for the performance review and the manager pulls out the notebook and starts to ream off all the issues potentially that they've gathered, or haven't shared with the employee in the intervening period.

So I'm a fan of feedback being an on-going process, and I think performance reviews then are an opportunity to record formally a point in time to summarise the last three months, six months, year, whatever length of time that that is.

But remember, I suppose, for me the concept of . . . obviously, I've written a book called "The Art of Asking the Right Questions", so for me, performance management is also all about the manager or the HR department, whoever's involved in conducting the reviews, being the person who has planned really great questions.

And for me, it's starting with the basics of identifying what's going well with the person, and obviously, you giving your feedback as to what's going well. It's identifying what's not going so well, and again, you giving your feedback once the employee has given you some feedback.

It's about setting smart goals that you can agree that you will review between now and when you formally sit down and meet the person again, but on an on-going basis, you can check in on progress in relation to the milestones because you've set measurable goals, which is really important. And you'll also always ask, "Have you any other issues?" So if you do those four key questions, for me, you've done a really good performance review.

If you want to, obviously, do a more complex version that measures people, you know, against competencies, or behaviours, or job skills, etc., that you have already identified, that's also fantastic. But if we don't get those four key questions answered by the employee and also feedback given by the manager, then, in essence, we're missing the core knob of what we want to achieve from a performance review, which is all about improving performance and ensuring that we're achieving a higher standard as we do that.

Lynsey: Yeah, and I guess for a lot of organisations, their performance appraisal form can be six or seven pages, but if you're keeping to those four shorter areas, it's going to make for a more effective meeting.

Caroline: Absolutely. And for me, I suppose, it's the trick as well that you want the employee to be the one who's doing all the talking, because oftentimes we ask the question, but then we start filling in the blank and we start answering the question as well for the employee. Whereas it's really important that we ask questions and we let the person talk and that we're really focussing on the listening part.

And for me, during performance reviews, if you do amazing questions, and you focus on listening, you get a really good, you know, opportunity to move things on to the next level. And that includes whether you're doing a poor performer who is on a PIP, or whether you're doing a superstar, asking them those questions and finding out, you know, what is it that is not going so well for them. It might be something like they need more flexibility. It might be they need more challenging work. You know, you've a real opportunity to use the opportunity then for that to be a catalyst for change and for them to really feel they've been heard.

Lynsey: Great. Okay. So objectives and benefits of performance management then.

Benefits of performance management

Caroline: I suppose we've covered some of the objectives, and for me, it's the broader element of giving feedback that has so many benefits. We've covered some of the benefits outlined associated with, you know, improving people's performance, making sure that we're tapping into the superstars and identifying what's really important for them.

And I think we're also, as organisational advisors now, or as HR departments, or as people managers in general, very focussed on there's not one size that fits all anymore. And by getting the feedback and trying to tailor the plan that you come up with to suit that employee, or if they've got requests or queries. Though, again, we're trying to match the person, their career progression in line with business performance and in line with business requirements. Of course, we're very much trying to have that tailored plan for that employee so that they feel like, "It's worth my while staying in this organisation. They've got an exciting time for me, and I can see the progression opportunities as a result".

Lynsey: Great. We've just got a quick question in there. "Caroline, can you list the four questions again to ask the employee at performance appraisal meeting?" So just those four areas again. Thank you.

Four questions to ask the employee at performance appraisal meeting

  1. What is going well?
  2. What's not going so well?
  3. What are the smart goals we're going to agree?
  4. Have you any issues?

Caroline: Yeah, no problem. So the first one is what's going well? And obviously, if the employee says, "Well, I can't think of anything", then Houston, we have a problem, because we need them to tell us what do they like about the job, what's going well in the job.

And again, oftentimes when somebody says, "Look, I can't think of anything", I'll say, "Look, I'll give you a minute. Have a think about it you know, because it's important that I understood from you what is going well". And obviously, it's hopefully something that's related to the job. Then you're going to give them your opinion on each of these questions as well. So the first question is "What's going well?"

The next question is "What's not going so well?" And sometimes people are reluctant to tell you what's not going well. And if that's the case, you need to make sure that, again, you're saying, "Look, you know, is there anything you can think of?" And if they keep giving you that, "Well, no, I can't think of anything", then you might say, "Well, look, maybe what about the interaction you're having with customers at the moment? You know, how do you feel that's going?" or, "What about the interaction you're having with your fellow colleagues? How's that going?" or, "What about the quality assurance standard scores you're getting at the moment?" etc.

So you're prompting them if you need to, but obviously, we know that it's better if they'll internalise the feedback and they're able to be self-aware enough to give you what it is that they feel the need to improve on.

Then the next one is "What are the SMART goals we're going to agree?" And the SMART goals, it's really important that they're specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. And for me, the time-bound and measurable pieces are crucial, because if we can't measure it, and it's something unmeasurable, we can't when we sit down the next time say, "We achieved that", or, "We didn't achieve that".

And I'll give you an example of maybe a difficult one to measure. So remember, we started out by saying today the importance of performance around the technical competence to do the job and also the behavioural values of the organisation and the culture we want the person to demonstration. And it's generally much easier to demonstrate the technical job skill, but it's harder for us to capture the culture or the behaviour unless there's an issue.

And obviously, if there's an issue and there's been a breach of dignity and respect, or the customer service standard, we'll hear about it, but it's important that we're asking the person, "Can you give me some examples of how you've exceeded the customers' expectations?" or, "Can you give me some examples of, you know, how you've demonstrated positivity?" To me, positivity is a crucial requirement in the work environment.

And if they say, "No, I can't think of anything", you might add that as a smart objective for next time, but it might be a case of, "Next time we meet, I want you to show me five key ways that you've demonstrated these core values and we're going to discuss them when we meet next". So the next time you meet, you'll have specific examples and the person is clear that that's what you will be looking for.

And our last question is "Have you any issues?" And I suppose that's so important and it's probably never been more important because we know that people are, you know, experiencing challenges that we may not be aware of. It might be to do with their personal life, but it might be impacting work and overflowing into the work environment.

And obviously, we've recently done a session on managing grief in the workplace, and using that as an example. That was so popular. I mean, I got so much individual feedback from people contacting me afterwards to say, "Grief is something we don't proactively manage. But we know that there are a lot of problems in the work environment because we're not handling it well". So again, actually proactively handling those kinds of issues we know will have a very positive impact on people's performance.

So finding out if they have issues, there's a solution for everything, that we can at least make it more positive than where it is if we don't know about it and if we're not dealing with it proactively. So "Have you any issues?"

And again, you know, sometimes you will know the person has but they might not want to share it with you, and that's perfectly fine.

But I suppose, generally, you need to ask that question a few times by saying, "Look, Caroline, if there's anything at all that you feel would be helpful for you to share with me, so we can support you, we'd be happy to do so". And then generally, the person will open up and say, "Look, I'm struggling since my mom died", or whatever the case may be. So at least we know about it. Otherwise, if we don't know about it, it's very hard to proactively help the person in that regard.

And again, I suppose that's the importance of having that open door policy and, you know, again, proactively showing employees that we're here and we have tools. Again, there's fantastic checklist that we can give people to assist them if somebody is dealing with presenteeism, somebody's dealing with grief, somebody's dealing with an attitudinal issue There are ways to unstick the situation, but if we don't name it and we're not proactive about dealing with it, it makes it much more challenging.

Lynsey: Yeah. And of course, the next point then is the aims of probation and benefits. Now, of course, we did a full webinar on this subject just last year, and that's available on the Irish Employment Law Hub if anybody's looking for more details. And I suppose it's just a quick snapshot of the aims of using the probation period.

Aims of using a probation period

Caroline: Yeah, so probation is one that comes up on a daily if not weekly basis for us as an issue. And maybe if we remind ourselves of the top tips around probation on this webinar, and as Lynsey said, there's more information available there.

But I suppose for me, the top tip, first of all, is your probation should be as long as possible. I see some contracts of employment and the probation is only three months and it's a one-liner, "You are on probation for three months full stop". Your probationary clause in your contract of employment is hugely important. And I would say Step 1 is to revisit what it is you say about probation.

Because remember, when we recruit somebody, we're using as many tools as we can. But now, it's a full labour market. It's never been more difficult to get amazing people, that we might be taking somebody on and in our own mind we're saying, "I hope this person works out", but you're not 100% convinced. So probation is the opportunity for you to see, "Is this person going to fit the job, competence, and technical skill, and also the culture and the behavioural requirements of the role and of the organisation?"

So during probation, it's crucial . . . I always say we meet somebody on a Month 1, Month 3, and Month 6. And sometimes you'll get way earlier than that. It might be the first week and you're starting to get vibes, or feedback, or you're getting a sense that this isn't working. After Week 1, then you're bringing the person in to say, "Look, Caroline, I've had this feedback from a co-employee. I've had that feedback from your line manager", or you might be the line manager who's having the conversation. But to me, I get that conversation started early.

And the requirement when somebody is on probation is to give them feedback and confirm the feedback in writing. And the key line you need to put in is, "As you know, you're on probation, and this standard of performance currently is not meeting the required standards. Failure to improve will result in your employment being terminated because you would've failed your probation".

And a lot of people are going, "Oh my God, I couldn't put that in writing. It'll upset the person". That's the requirement. It's really important that there's no ambiguity, and there's no easy way to say that, so it's really important that we put it on record. And for me, the sooner you put it on record, the better.

The second thing is people often think that they must wait for the full probationary period to pass before they can start either a performance improvement discussion, or a discussion that it's very obvious the person is not going to suit the role because of technical skill or ability or whatever has been demonstrated.

And the end of probation isn't . . . you don't have to wait until Month 6 or whatever length of time you've allocated to the probation. What is crucial is you're giving the chance to the person to improve.

We mentioned earlier on that some people may not realise that whatever it is we're expecting of them is a job requirement. So it's really important that you're giving the person the feedback and you're giving them the support, because the last thing as an organisation you want to do is to go back and recruit again, and also it's the morale element that that impacts from an organisational perspective for all the other employees within the organisation.

But it's way better to call it early rather than expecting that it will improve when in reality you know it won't.

The importance of a paper trail

The probation piece is the same as any other performance improvement discussion we're having. Lots of people will say . . . again, back to the psychic management. People will say, "Well, look, Caroline knows I'm not happy with her performance", or, "She knows that probation isn't going well". But for us, it's crucially important that we're able to say, "Show me the paper trail that outlines where you've had these discussions with that person".

Because ultimately, that's what's going to come back to us in terms of as employers to be able to show we'd objectively justified grounds as to why this person's performance wasn't acceptable and it wasn't for any reason, for example, to do with equality or anything else. And it's that paper trail that will protect us as a result.

So probation, for me, often we leave it too late before we flag the issues. And sometimes HR can be a step removed, so the line manager that's managing the person might be saying, "Well, look, they're only new. I'm going to give them more time". The line manager might be really busy with other things and isn't spending enough time maybe managing or observing the performance that they should. And as a consequence, the next thing we know it's two and a half months in and the probation is three months and the person has got no feedback to date to outline, "We need them to improve their performance".

So it's crucially important that you start the paper trail early. I know somebody might say, "I'm sure you can extend the probation if necessary". You can. However, for me, generally people forget the deadline to extend and the amount of times we have people who have great intentions of saying, "Well, look, you know, I need to meet the person", and something else gets in the way and probation isn't extended on time.

So it's one of those windows that for me it's to have the conversations earlier, get the paper trail outlined earlier, because sometimes an intervention of giving the person more training early or giving them coaching or mentoring early means that it resolves any issues that might occur because we've made that early intervention. Whereas when the person is there longer, it makes it more challenging to address whatever that attitude or competence or, you know, specific issue might be that has raised the issue.

As you all know, the sooner you nip the issue in the bud, the better chance we have of successfully resolving the issue. But the longer the issue is an issue, the more rolling moss the stone has gathered and the bigger the problem is. So it generally becomes a much more challenging situation.

And that links in very well on the importance of upskilling our managers, because for a lot of managers, they genuinely don't know how to have those challenging conversations. And we've outlined the questions today. All we need to do is give them the kind of tools, and the tips, and keeping it really simple is the best approach in my view when you've got line managers. So you don't want to get it over complex, but you're kind of going to them to say, "What are the areas that we need you to focus on?"

As we know, line managers are becoming operational HR managers a lot more, and I do feel a lot of the time we're not maybe giving them the tips and the tools to have the conversations about poor performance proactively early. And a lot of their time is spent on the poor performers, where we'd much prefer that their time was spent on the superstars and focussing on higher performance, and rewarding and developing our amazing people rather than just dealing with unacceptable performance.

Lynsey: So we're very quickly running out of time. We have only a few minutes left. We've got loads of good questions and we have a couple of points we're probably not going to get to cover. Caroline, do you want to discuss the support mechanisms that you think are important?

Important support mechanisms

Caroline: Yeah, I think that'd be really important. I suppose, for me, the support . . . I think the first thing is make sure that the line managers have skills to facilitate them to manage performance proactively and help them understand what to do if they see the performance is unacceptable.

And again, give them the questions rather than encouraging them to talk. I think it's way better to say, "Look, here are the key questions. This is how you record it", and keep it simple for them, because you'll have a way better chance that they will do that for you.

I suppose the second key tip for me is to manage probation proactively. Revisit your clause on probation in your contract of employment and proactively look at that. I suppose our key focus here is higher performance and we want to nip issues in the bud and always identify what is the cause of the issue.

If somebody works with you for three years, they've been performing very well, and then all of a sudden the last couple of months things have changed, that could be a personality conflict with the manager, it could be because they're experiencing grief, or it could be something personal going on for them.

If we support people through those challenging times, we're going to have super loyal employees thereafter. So I think it's very important that we identify what is the cause of their poor performance.

I suppose for me the final thing is psychic management doesn't work. If there is an issue, we need to be very clear, we need to make sure we've got a very good paper trail, and there are resources there to facilitate us to address that, whether it's a performance improvement plan, whether it requires going down the road of disciplinary. But the most important thing is that we're doing something proactively to move it forward rather than accept unacceptable, because it's the ripple effect that that will have for everybody else as a result.

Lynsey: Okay. Well, that was a quick half hour, I have to say. There were loads and loads . . .

Caroline: It flew, Lynsey.

Lynsey: Didn't it? It really did. There's a lot in there for listeners, and I think most people might want to listen back again on the Hub once we get it up there. There are a lot of people asking where they can get more information on probation. And as I said before, on the Legal-Island hub, there is a full webinar on probation that we did last year. There are some articles from The HR Suite on performance management, which are all equally just really, really good.

But there are a lot of questions here on poor performing employees with mental health and sickness issues and things like that. So it may be that we maybe look at a Q&A for the next webinar that will deal with a lot of these, because some of them are a full webinar in themselves I think. So Caroline and I, we'll maybe have a wee chat after just as to what we can do with those because there are some really interesting things on there.

But for now, thanks, Caroline. We are indeed out of time. If you need to contact me directly - And you can see the contact there for Caroline and her team at The HR Suite.

And if you're an Irish Employment Law Hub subscriber, next week you'll have the recording available on the website and a full transcript within the next few weeks.

 So very finally, thank you, Caroline. I know you're busy and you've got lots on, so we appreciate your time and your thoughts and all your top tips.

Caroline: My pleasure.

Lynsey: Great. And we'll see you in June. Thank you to everyone for listening. We look forward to seeing you soon. Thank you.

Part Two


Transcript to follow shortly.

This article is correct at 08/05/2019

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Caroline Reidy
The HR Suite

The main content of this article was provided by Caroline Reidy. Contact telephone number is +353 66 710 2887 / +353 86 775 2064 or email

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