AS budgets are squeezed, resources harder to come by and even greater efforts are expected of staff in the current climate, medical and dental practices are becoming increasingly conscious that managing performance is not some optional extra but an essential ingredient of staff management if we are to remain competitive (and open!).
But the archives of Law At Work’s advice calls are littered with desperate cries for help from exasperated managers who have lost patience with staff who just don’t seem to have got the message that a fair day’s work is required in return for that fair day’s pay.
Our usual question to callers is: “What efforts have you made to ensure that staff are crystal clear about exactly what is expected of them and do you draw the inadequacies of individual poor performers to their attention in a formal manner?
Basically, are these staff aware of the consequences for their continuing failure to meet the standards of performance expected of them?”
We are often greeted by the response: “Of course they know what’s expected of them. We keep telling them they are not performing well. They just don’t get the message!”
What often emerges on investigation is a murky history of conversations (largely unrecorded) about the work not getting done and of excuses being made by the staff member for not being able to do it. The discussion may have been triggered by a customer or colleague complaint or the manager taking over uncompleted tasks – just to get them completed – or correcting errors themselves.
This clearly falls short of what is effective, good practice, motivational and legal from a management point of view. Many staff will respond well to clarity regarding what they are required to do (and to what standard) and to an approach which engages them in a discussion to identify the barriers to good performance and explains how these can be overcome.
It is a myth, in our experience, that staff just want to be left alone to get on with things – especially if they suspect that their manager is going to descend on them at some point to criticise their output or quality of work.
If, as an employee, I have been told what ‘success’ looks like and that I will be held to that expectation I can judge reasonably well what I have to do to achieve that – and, frankly, I am going to shout if there are things stopping me from doing so. If I can’t be bothered and know that I will be picked up for falling short of my targets then I will hardly be surprised if (eventually) I’d be putting my job at risk.
All this presupposes a degree of formality on the part of the organisation in describing job duties and responsibilities, defining job-related objectives in a precise, quantifiable and time-bound manner and reviewing progress on a regular, formal basis.
Relying on some single, annual appraisal discussion, in isolation, will provide a check on performance progress but is hardly effective in tackling performance problems that arise during the operational year. It will amount to too little, too late.
It is, of course, possible that a particular individual employee may be determined to avoid their responsibilities and decide to try to get away with performing as little as possible. In doing so, they are ultimately putting their job at risk. But their manager risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by trying to deal with the recalcitrant employee informally for as long as possible – then jumping on them like a ton of bricks when they lose patience with them.
This is almost certainly likely to be both ineffective and legally risky for the organisation. What is required is a move to formal warnings about poor performance, at an appropriate point in a particular case, with the individual under no illusions about exactly what they need to do in terms of improvements in performance (with objectives and timescales) to meet the required standards.
If the individual fails to respond to this formal warning process then they will justifiably face another formal review, potentially another (higher-level) warning and, eventually, dismissal with notice.
The good news is that in most cases our clients find that (with our guidance at each step of the way) the employee responds positively to this process and a dismissal is unnecessary. The even better news for them is that if a dismissal ends up being challenged in an employment tribunal as unfair, the employer’s defence is straightforward and well documented.
The answer for employers is don’t lose patience. Treat staff with maturity and as much formality as necessary and most will respond positively to your management and remain motivated to deliver the level of performance you expect.
Ian Watson is training services manager at Law At Work
Law At Work is MDDUS preferred supplier of employment law and health and safety services. For more information and contact details please visit www.lawatwork.co.uk