Vol. 81, No. 2, February
What Keeps You Awake At Night?
How Do I Handle an Underperforming Staff Person?
Due to growth in our small firm, I recently was designated the
partner in charge of personnel matters. We have an employee who does
some tasks satisfactorily but has not improved in other
important areas. What steps should I take to document performance and
decide whether and how to fire the employee?
Communicate Directly and Provide Concrete Feedback
Decades ago, when I took the
time to be extremely detailed in my delegation
of tasks, I did not have a problem with underperformance. Mostly, I
face to face. As time went on, and the projects got more complicated, I
sacrificed that style in favor of a larger volume of work and used
communicate. Instead of training, nurturing, and motivating
"underperformers," I simply
put demands on them. This was a mistake.
Now, after years of experience I have realized that staff
members want you
to communicate directly with them, understand them, some of their
issues, and their fears of success and failure and, quite bluntly, they
want you to
show them how and why they are underperforming and what steps they can
improve. I look for patterns of underperformance and when I discover
something that may help, I happily walk into that person's office.
It's fun for both. Oftentimes I will sit at the staff person's
and do demonstrations of what I do to increase my efficiency. Secondly,
their input on all projects and I constantly ask them how they feel
each project. It opens up an opportunity for bonding. I always remember
- Michael Ablan, Michael Ablan Law Firm SC, La Crosse
Document, Document, Document
Documentation is key to
effective employee retention or termination.
Specific examples of the errors or areas of underperformance should be
remedial training meetings between you and the employee. Allow the
opportunity to determine what he or she will do to rectify the
and sign a statement to that effect. Document if those actions are not
Look at your firm's procedure on termination. Do you have a progressive
disciplinary procedure (verbal warning, written warning, suspension,
the errors the employee is making putting the firm at risk of any
violations or malpractice issues? Do you have examples of reasons for
termination in your employment manual? A termination should not come as
a surprise to
an employee if you have met with the employee, documented the issue,
the employee a chance to improve performance, and documented and
any improvement or lack of improvement.
- Brenda A. Majewski, administrator, Kohn Law Firm S.C.,
Link Employee Performance to Written Job Description, and Set
Benchmarks for Improvement
The first step you will need to take is to have a current, written
description for the employee's position. Next, meet with the employee to
the job description, giving and asking for honest feedback on each of
tasks. Does the employee realize she or he is not performing up to
on specific tasks? Try to find out why the employee isn't accomplishing
specific tasks satisfactorily.
Work with the employee to set specific, quantifiable benchmarks
deadlines, in writing, for improvement, and make sure the benchmarks are
and dated by the employee. Include a statement of understanding that the
benchmarks are understood, and that discipline, up to and including
termination, is a
management option for the employee's failure to meet the benchmarks. Be
to document all meetings in writing. Meet regularly with the employee to
monitor progress, making sure to offer any reasonable help needed for
to succeed (for example, training or mentoring).
If the employee continues to fail to meet the benchmarks, you
the documentation necessary to terminate the employee for failure to
the functions of the position as stated in the job description. Whether
to terminate or not will depend on how well the employee performs other
how hard it would be to replace the employee, whether the employee's
be absorbed by existing staff, and whether you have someone able to
time necessary to train a new hire.
- Lenor Coe, Firm Administrator, Godfrey, Leibsle,
Blackbourn & Howarth
Clearly Communicate Consequences of a Failure to Improve
In my labor and employment law
practice, I recommend that if the employer
has not already done so, it should create a job description (include the
at issue). The employer should present the job description to the
and communicate that a performance review will take place at a specific
the future (for example, 3-12 months). For many employees, the
of explicit, objective criteria and a precise return date will rectify
If a job description is already in place, and it includes the
issue, the employer should give the employee a performance improvement
This should be done in person with the consequences of a failure to
clearly communicated. The employer should set a return date but with a
timeline (for example, 30-90 days). By this action, the employer has now
a "legitimate business reason" for any subsequent discipline
If the situation reaches critical mass, the employer might
termination. Under Wisconsin law, an employer may terminate an at-will
any or no reason (subject only to discrimination laws and inferences
by insufficient documentation of performance deficiencies).
If the employee truly excels in some areas, the employer may
offering training in the areas of deficiency or restructuring the job.
- Mark J. Goldstein, Milwaukee