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Kate Russell

Russell HR Consulting


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HR headmistress: How to manage workplace performance


Kate Russell, the HR headmistress, provides this to brush up the basic skills of experienced pros and give beginners a headstart. Lesson 1: promises v performance – how to manage performance in the organisation.

Mae West said that an ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises. Poor work performance is one of the most common complaints, but one of the areas least well tackled. The question to ask yourself is “are all my employees meeting all my workplace standards nearly all the time?”
No? Then you have work to do!

  1. What is “capability”?
    Capability refers to an employee’s skills, ability, aptitude and knowledge in relation to his job.  It is one of the potentially fair reasons for dismissal, provided that the procedure has been correctly followed.
  2.  Set standards
    Standards are the minimum levels of performance or conduct required by the organisation.  Ensure that employees know your workplace standards.  For example, we have a rule that advice to clients must be confirmed in writing.  Be precise.  If you can’t explain exactly what you expect your employees to deliver, you’ll have a problem explaining to an employment tribunal why you have reasonable belief that a dismissed employee was incompetent.
  3.  Provide regular feedback
    Be friendly, but keep a degree of separation from your employees. Provide regular objective feedback.  In addition to the exchanges that take place during the working day, meet with employees regularly (every two or three months) to discuss how things are going and to give and receive feedback informally. Such meetings are useful for reiterating performance standards, clarifying understanding, providing relevant information, and establishing agreements and expectations on both sides.
  4.  Provide early guidance and correction
    Act as soon as you notice that the employee is not performing work to the required standard. Delaying, or doing nothing, may well cause the performance problem to get worse. It’s much easier to blow out a match than put out a forest fire!
  5.  Focus on the facts
    Investigating will help you collate an accurate picture of the employee’s performance. The first steps will be informal. Discuss the matter with the employee, giving specific examples to help him understand your concerns. Create an informal performance improvement plan (PIP) together and ensure that he is fully supported.
  6. Give time to improve
    Give the employee reasonable time to improve to the specified standard (two or three months is appropriate in most cases). If there’s insufficient improvement, move to the formal capability process and ensure that all procedural elements, for example, the right to be accompanied, are observed.  The PIP will continue alongside the formal process.

Many employees automatically respond to guidance by submitting a grievance citing bullying and harassment. In the face of this type of behaviour, many managers simply abandon the whole thing. If an employee complains of harassment when you’re trying to manage them, try the following.

  • Make sure that your dignity at work procedure points out that managers have a right and a duty to manage.  If a manager is seeking to help and encourage an employee to do his job, it does not constitute bullying, harassment or victimisation.
  • Provide evidence of poor work performance to support what you say.
  • Ask why the employee thinks he is being bullied.  Ask ’Help me understand why you think I’m treating you less favourably than anyone else who performs at this level?’  By putting the onus back on the employee, you start to call him to account.

Learning how to deal with underperformance is an essential management skill. It takes time and patience, but it’s not difficult. By following and practising the HR Headmistress’ tips, you will master the skills and gain the confidence to apply them successfully. As a result you’ll find that your team will deliver improved performance, cutting costs, reducing errors and improving productivity.
Remember, promises are ephemeral.  Performance adds weight to the bottom line…


  • Kate Russell is the MD of Russell HR Consulting and the author of How to Get Top Marks in … Managing Poor Work Performance. Find out more here:

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