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How to ... Manage underperforming employees

Staff members failing to do their work well need help to improve performance, writes Claire Brook.

It is never pleasant to tell a staff member, including a poorly performing salaried GP, that they are not pulling their weight. So how should your practice deal with underperformance?

Take preventive steps
Whether underperformance is due to incompetence, or to not dealing with paperwork correctly or time-keeping issues for example, the key to solving the problem involves the GP employer implementing measures to help staff improve performance (see boxes).

These include ensuring that staff have challenging but appropriate work to do, and that, if there is underperformance, the GP employer understands any underlying problem before applying a solution. Reviewing what you do as the employer is important if you are to avoid an unfair dismissal claim if a staff member is dismissed for poor performance.

Golden Rules
To remedy poor performance effectively:

  • You must be satisfied that the staff member is underperforming.
  • Explain to them the nature of the under performance and what is required.
  • Issue appropriate warnings.
  • Give the individual the opportunity to improve and provide appropriate training and support.
  • Monitor their performance.
  • If there is no improvement, consider alternative employment within the practice.
  • Ensure you are fair to the individual and comply with statutory disciplinary procedures before dismissing them.
  • Get expert advice if you are in any way unsure what constitutes a fair disciplinary procedure.
  • Act reasonably throughout the process.

Is performance poor?
Establish that an employee really is underperforming before taking action. Is there concrete evidence such as statements from colleagues or frequent complaints from patients?

In any event, you must genuinely believe the employee is not doing their job properly. However demonstrating that an employee is underperforming may be difficult if they have been doing the same job for a long time without previous criticism or warnings, or if they have recently had a good appraisal or significant pay rise.

Ensure staff have challenging but appropriate work to do and that you understand any underlying problems

Help the employee
Before any formal action, give the employee the opportunity to improve. The individual may think that they are doing their job properly or they may not have been properly trained. You must explain to them what they are doing wrong and what is required. Set a time scale for improvement and provide any necessary training or support.

Issue a written warning
If there is no improvement, go through the first stage of the statutory disciplinary process: give the individual a written warning (issued after a disciplinary hearing in accordance with the statutory procedure).

The warning should give full details of the faults complained of; a minimum time period to improve before being reviewed again and, if the issues are serious enough to justify dismissal, a warning that dismissal will be considered if there is no improvement.

Invite the individual to discuss the matter further and offer them the right to appeal the outcome if there is no improvement.

Monitor the individual
The monitoring period should be long enough to allow the employee to improve, but be careful that you are not perceived to be overbearing. Re-evaluate performance when the period ends. If they are achieving the goals set, then the problem is resolved. If they are a little short of their goals, the monitoring period can be extended.

Disciplinary procedure
If, after appropriate warnings, there is no improvement, the employee should be invited to a meeting.

You must write to the individual and state that their performance has not improved and that you are considering dismissal. The letter should state that you will discuss whether the assessment of their performance is correct and if there are any reasons why they should not be dismissed.

Remind the employee that they can bring a colleague or trade union representative.

Disciplinary meeting
You should have already considered if there are any alternative posts that the employee is capable of performing. If there are, ask if they would consider an alternative post.

Allow the employee to give any explanation that they consider appropriate. Take (and retain) a full note of the meeting. If there is no suitable alternative job, and after the meeting you are convinced there is a no legitimate reason for the poor performance, as long as the employee has sufficient written warning(s) regarding their performance in the past 12 months you may be able to dismiss them.

Send them a detailed letter setting out your findings and informing them of the right to appeal.

  • Claire Brook is an associate in the employment team at solicitors Aaron & Partners in Chester (www.aaronandpartners.com)
  • Employment law guidance at www.berr.gov.uk, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Improve your staff's performance
Do this by ensuring:

  • There is clear communication between managers (usually the practice manager) and staff.
  • Staff have challenging but appropriate work.
  • You encourage early intervention by a (competent and confident) manager if an employee is performing poorly.
  • Each staff member knows what their objectives should be and what is expected from them.
  • If there is underperformance, make sure that you understand any underlying problem before applying a solution.
  • The employee understands and acknowledges that there is a problem and accepts some responsibility for resolving it.
  • You support the employee by providing training and by ensuring they have regular contact with their line manager.

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