Early action to identify and resolve problems is the easiest way to solve them. Quick action reduces demands on your time and improves productivity throughout the work unit. You have the most options and the best chance of success at this time. And saving an employee who knows your organization and has been productive in the past is both time-saving and cost effective. Address and resolve problems early rather than let them continue!

First, clearly identify the problem. If you have not fulfilled any of your own responsibilities, correct this situation now. Once you have provided the needed guidance and tools, assess probable causes and possible courses of action. Document the problem with specific examples.

Second, talk to the person. Describe your concerns factually with specific examples of the problem performance or attitude and the impact on the work unit or others. Seek the person’s input and assess it honestly. Ask for their plan to address and correct the problem. Develop an action plan together and follow-up on it. For a first occurrence or a minor problem, this can be done informally and without written notice to the person. Make this a constructive discussion with a positive tone. But it is smart to keep some notes on what you discussed.

If resolution is not achieved, the problem re-occurs, or the initial problem is in a critical aspect of the work, your options are more formal. There are three potential options, other than ‘termination at will’, although the first two are useful only in rare cases. You can restructure the job, transfer the person, or take performance improvement action.

  • Restructuring the job is worth considering only if the person has very good skills in critical areas and the person is highly productive and the critical areas constitute a full position which contributes to company goals. In these rare cases, areas of poor performance would be eliminated or assigned to others.
  • Transferring a person is an option only where an individual can make a very productive contribution somewhere else in the company. These cases often result from an organization change which significantly changed the job, a mismatch in hiring, or a personality clash. This is not an opportunity to transfer your problem to someone else!

Performance improvement Actions

The purpose of performance improvement steps is to correct problems and attempt to retain individuals in a productive role. It is not appropriate in all cases.

Prudent management practice attempts to correct problems and to document the problems and process. Documentation should clearly define the problem, the goals and required actions, and the time frame for actions. This helps you and the employee to be clear about performance standards and consequences. It also minimizes legal risks to you and to the company if the individual initiates legal action.

Documentation is essential. Whatever your reason for performance improvement actions or termination of employment, minimize your own and the company’s risk by preparing and maintaining written evidence of:

  • Specific performance standards
  • Measurement against these standards
  • Opportunities and deadlines for improvement
  • Communication of the above over time
  • Demonstrated failure to meet the standards.

In developing documentation, be factual. Do not overstate or minimize the problems. Emotional comments have no place in your documents.

In most cases, performance improvement action is the most appropriate option. What actions are useful will depend on the problem, the employee, and the value of success in resolving the problem. If the problem is too severe or the person unresponsive, you may wish to consider termination of employment without progressive performance improvement actions.

If counseling and informal feedback on performance/behavior problems have not worked, move into more formal, written documentation of the issues and process.

Performance Improvement Actions Options

1. A “Letter of Warning” is a written record of a counseling interview. If informal steps have not solved the problem, you would do a formal counseling session and document it with a memo or letter of warning. While the process is the same as for other counseling and feedback, it is followed by a written record of the session and defines the next step the individual must take to succeed and the time frame for the actions. A follow-up memo records the improvements or you then move into added steps. The letter and any follow-up memos are given to the employee and a copy is signed to acknowledge receipt. Maintain a copy for future reference.

2. A “Work Improvement Plan” is appropriate for significant or repeated problems. It is also a written document and includes:

  • A definition of the problem with specifics
  • Specific performance standards and behaviors as set goals
  • Defined measurements of the goals
  • A time frame for the required changes, which may be different for different goals
  • A statement of what you will do to help the person, such as periodic meetings and availability to answer questions
  • A statement that any failure to meet the plan goals or a repeat of the problem will lead to an immediate review of continued employment.

Such plans normally range from 30 – 60 days depending on the complexity of the work, the time reasonably required to make the changes, and the length of service of the person. The plan must be realistic and reasonable. Goals should be within normal standards. The letter documenting the plan is formally presented to the person who signs to acknowledge receipt. A signed copy is maintained in the person’s personnel file.

Example: Work Improvement Plan

  • I am placing you on a Work Improvement Plan effective today. This letter confirms our discussions of this plan. I have taken this action based on your continued performance problems despite previous counseling. You have missed work deadlines, have failed to warn me in advance that you would not make a deadline, and have not accepted responsibility for your actions. This hinders the ability of others to complete their work, creates problems with our customers, and reduces work unit morale.
  • During this plan, you have the following goals:
    -all assigned work will be fully completed in a timely manner
    -if you do not fully understand any assignment or deadline, you are to ask me for any needed clarification
    -any problem which may delay completion of any assigned work will be brought to my attention immediately on occurrence with a proposed solution and time-frame
    -you will provide a complete status report of all currently assigned work, its due date and completion status, to me no later than two workdays from today so that we can discuss any issues/problems
  • The duration of this plan is November 4 – December 15. Failure to meet these goals at any time during the period of this plan or the occurrence of similar problems will result in a review of your continued employment. A recurrence of similar problems or development of other significant problems within one year of successful completion of this work improvement plan will result in an immediate review of your continued employment. A copy of this plan will be maintained in your personnel records for a period of two years following successful completion of this plan.
  • I will be happy to work with you during the duration of this plan to assist you in understanding work assignments, priorities, and deadlines. We will meet weekly to review your progress.
  • I know you have the ability to succeed in your work and to successfully resolve this problem. However, you must accept the responsibility for your actions and success.
  • I acknowledge receipt of this work improvement plan.
    ________________________________Signature and date

During the plan period, you should closely monitor and maintain records of performance. Routine feedback of performance and progress or lack thereof is required throughout the plan period.

If the person continues to create problems or does not comply with the goals, termination of employment may be appropriate at any time within the plan period or at the end of the period.

When the person successfully completes the plan, a follow-up memo recording the successful completion is written and copies provided to the person and for the personnel file. In some cases, you may elect to extend the plan due to good faith efforts to comply or external circumstances which affect it. This should be noted formally on all copies of the plan or in a separate memo.

3. A ‘recommitment’ day off may be an alternative in some cases. In this option, you would discuss the issues as above but rather than moving into an action plan, you would give the person the next day off as a time to think about whether they want to retain their job or not. This option is best used when the person is generally competent but there have been a series of problems or sudden, significant issues and prior corrective action has not resulted in sustained improvement because the person does not see the importance of change. It is not an excuse for a manager who does not want to take the time needed to resolve a performance problem with an employee.

This is a paid day off and normally requires the person to come in and state their plans to retain their position or not on the following day. It must be documented with a written memo stating the problem, the employee’s decision and what efforts they have agreed to. If the person commits to retaining their job, they must make the corrections needed or termination of employment may be appropriate.

In Sum, effectively catching problems early and dealing with them quickly is the easiest way to build a productive workforce and retain good employees.  It also enhances morale as others see both your efforts to resolve the issue and its correction before they get stuck doing someone else’s cleanup.  Keeping decent records ensures you and the employee both have the same understanding of the problem and expectations.  This documentation also helps you reduce potential risk, such as unemployment insurance increases or adverse legal/regulatory actions.  You can do this!