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Is it poor performance or another problem?


I’ll address the question by sharing a case study, a colleague’s response, then looking at what I think is the real problem before providing my answer.


The Story

While visiting a client recently I was advised by the CEO that an employee with 7 years’ service was “no longer performing”.  The supervisor was called in to discuss the situation and agreed the employee’s performance had been deteriorating for probably two years and had declined fairly dramatically over the past 6 months.


After about 10 minutes discussion my reaction was “this is not poor performance, this is lack of engagement.  Why? Because the person had done the job admirably for 6 ½ years and in my experience there is something else happening. I.e. he is choosing not to do his job”.

As part of our normal process I was then asked to look into the situation for the CEO.  Within 2 hours I had discovered that the employee had been suffering from a serious medical situation for about 2 years.  His supervisor was aware and had made attempts to counsel the employee.  However the CEO had never been advised.


The CEO then spoke to the employee expressing concerns about how his medical condition was now impacting on his performance.  The employee immediately improved his performance for about two weeks then abruptly resigned.


In my view there are two messages in this story.

  1. Poor performance in not always the problem

  2. Whatever the problem is, if it is impacting on the job, it needs to be addressed quickly.

The HR Colleague’s Response

As I relayed this story to my colleague he asked two questions:

  1. Did you find out what the problem was that caused him to resign?

  2. How did you get him to resign?

My responses may surprise you as I replied:

  1. Why is find out what the problem was that caused him to resign important?  The key issue was how to address the management problem caused after the line manager had tried unsuccessfully to address the medical issue.

  2. I did not get him to resign.  I helped solve a management problem.

The Real Problem 

In my view the real problem is reflected in the attitude and approach of my HR colleague.  You see in cases such as the one mentioned, there is always an ongoing problem that the line manager has attempted to resolve before it is discussed with HR. The problem is HR still focuses on the employee’s issue, almost as if the line manager’s efforts don’t count.  

Secondly like many HR Practitioners, my colleague was after the ‘magic’ procedure to have the person resign.  Blindly following some procedure causes more harm than good.  By the way that is the view of a Fair Work Commissioner. 


My Answer

We (HR Practitioners) need mind shift – one that enables us to say “OK you tried and now it has escalated to a management problem.  How can I help you solve that?”


In my experience the answer is stop following the procedure and hoping for a good outcome and start looking at the management/organisational problems caused by “poor performance”.  Now  solve the problem with a clear goal that the employee is included as part of the solution.  If however, the employee chooses not to be part of the solution then they must exit the organisation without the risk of unfair dismissal


In my experience anything less is a disservice to the employee and the organisation.

After almost 20 years of following this approach about 65% of ‘poor performers’ actually turnaround, occasionally with spectacular positive results.  About 25% choose to resign as occurred in this case and the remaining 15% have their employment terminated.  And we have never lost an appeal for unfair dismissal.


A copy of the template we use is available at http://neoshr.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/MAP-template.pdf.


I trust this article demonstrates ‘poor performance’ is generally not the problem. Rather it is the lack of engagement and subsequent management problem created that we should be addressing with our policies and procedures.


If I can do it, what is stopping you achieve similar results?

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Mark Shaw

HR Business and Systems Improvement

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