Addressing Employee Performance
How quickly should you write up an employee for a performance issue? We recommended you address performance issues with the employee as soon as possible.
First, feedback is more effective the more quickly it’s delivered. Waiting to provide feedback increases the likelihood that the employee won’t remember what they did wrong. And they may make the same mistake again!
Second, waiting to provide feedback risks sending the wrong message. The employee might feel that their mistake wasn’t that big of a deal since you waited so long to address it. Worse, they might associate their being disciplined with something else they did more recently—like bringing up a safety concern, reporting harassment, or using sick leave or FMLA.
That said, there are legitimate reasons to wait before disciplining an employee. If the employee went on leave immediately following their performance mistake, for example, you would usually want to wait until they returned to work before addressing the issue. You might also need to wait on any disciplinary action if the incident requires an investigation to determine what actually happened.
The Importance of Immediately Documenting Performance Problems
The importance of documenting performance problems as they occur cannot be overstated. Although this requires meeting with the employee and discussing the issue, which will almost certainly be uncomfortable, it’s your best defense to a wrongful termination claim should the employee feel litigious after termination.
Too many employers rely on the concept of employment at-will to protect them, when the reach of this concept is actually quite limited. The problem is that if an employer has little to no documentation and relies on at-will employment—and the theory that legally no reason is required—the terminated employee, their attorney, and possibly a jury of their peers will fill the blank with an illegal reason. Although you may be within your rights to terminate “for no reason,” it’s a dangerous position to take.
But if the threat of litigation isn’t compelling enough, there are other reasons to deal with performance and behavioral issues promptly and with documentation. Addressing performance and behavioral issues as they arise will improve performance and behavior! There are a few basic principles working in your favor when you commit to the manta of “Don’t delay, manage today.”
Here are just a few:
- If they don’t know they’re doing something wrong, they can’t fix it. A huge number of employees don’t realize their performance or behavior is a problem—or that it’s as bad as it is—until they are being handed their pink slip. Talking to them about it will likely lead to you having a better employee and reduce hefty turnover costs.
- No one likes being in trouble. If you talk to an employee about an issue and they understand that failure to improve will result in another talking to, they are likely to shape up. If they are impervious to discipline, then addressing issues early and often will help you shepherd them out the door more quickly, so you can replace them with someone better.
- Documentation makes it real for the employee. It’s easy to brush off a quick, oral scolding time and again, but when employees know something is “going in the file,” they are likely to take it much more seriously.
- Other employees will catch on. If you are consistent in addressing performance and behavioral issues, your employees will know it. But consistency is key. If you only haul employees in sporadically for failing to meet expectations, you won’t reap the benefits of a culture of accountability.
Ultimately, talking to employees and making a paper trail will serve you both during employment, by encouraging better performance and reducing turnover costs, and after, should they threaten to sue.