HR Tip of the Week

Posted on  |  Performance management

FAQs When Discussing Employee Performance & Conduct

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Employers often have questions about how to handle situations in which an employee’s conduct, attitude, or performance doesn’t meet expectations. Whether you’re trying to help reduce performance issues or looking for help getting an employee back on track, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Q: What can I do to help reduce conduct and performance issues?

A: You can help by setting up your employees for success. Here are some suggestions:

  • Clearly communicate expectations. Communicate workplace rules and procedures so employees know exactly what's expected of them and what they can expect from the company. It's a best practice to maintain an employee handbook for this purpose. In addition, confirm expectations when setting performance goals and provide employees with feedback on a regular basis.
  • Lead by example. Hold leaders accountable for demonstrating the conduct and performance you expect.
  • Set SMART goals. To the extent possible, include the employee in the goal-setting process. Goals should be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. By involving the employee in setting goals, you can help them understand the importance of their role and how it has an impact on business initiatives.
  • Foster inclusivity. Make sure your practices and decisions are free of bias, employees are paid equitably, and you take all complaints seriously. Train supervisors on all workplace policies and how to administer and enforce them consistently. During meetings, encourage all employees to share their ideas and feedback.
  • Motivate employees. Employees who are engaged and motivated are typically more successful at work. To help promote an engaged workforce, consider:
    • Employee recognition programs
    • Offering flexible work arrangements
    • Giving employees autonomy in how they complete tasks
    • Offering career development opportunities
    • Providing challenging work assignments and capitalizing on employees' skills and knowledge
  • Prepare employees for change. Give employees plenty of advance notice of upcoming changes. Take the time to explain the reasons for each change and how a new procedure may positively impact the employee's work environment.
  • Check in with employees. Schedule regular check ins with employees to see how they are doing and to solicit feedback about their experience working for your company.

Q: Should I document a “verbal warning?”

A: It's a best practice for employers to promptly document and retain all disciplinary actions, including verbal warnings, in the employee's personnel file. With a verbal warning, you can add a note with the date and substance of the conversation to the employee’s personnel file.

Note: For workplace investigations, maintain a separate file that includes: (1) all interview notes; (2) all communications with witnesses, the complainant(s), and the alleged offender(s); (3) all written witness statements; (4) all documents relating to the allegation(s); (5) the investigator's report; and (6) documentation of any remedial action taken.

Q: An employee missed their performance targets because they were on job-protected leave. Can I discipline the employee for this?

A: Many federal, state and local laws give employees the right to job-protected leave and prohibit retaliation against employees who exercise their rights to take leave. If an employee takes protected leave, you may not count this time against the employee when assessing their attendance or performance. There are a number of other laws that protect employees for engaging in other types of conduct, such as lawful off-duty activities. Check your applicable laws to ensure compliance.

Q: Do we have to give poor-performing employees an opportunity to improve? If so, how much time should we give them?

A: It is a best practice to monitor employee performance closely, provide frequent feedback, and intervene promptly when an issue arises. Generally, employers should give poor-performing employees a reasonable opportunity to improve. Depending on the circumstances, employers might consider putting employees on a 30-, 60-, or 90 -day improvement plan.

Q: At the end of a disciplinary meeting, an employee refused to sign the documentation I provided. What should I do?

A:  If the employee refuses to sign the documentation, explain that the purpose of the signature is to confirm that the employee received the information, not that they necessarily agree with it. If the employee disagrees with the information, give the employee an opportunity to provide a written statement explaining why they disagree with it. If the employee still refuses to sign, note that on the performance/disciplinary record and then date it.

Q: When performance, attitude or conduct becomes an issue, what steps can employers take to get employees back on track?

A: Here are a few suggestions to help you address performance, attitude or conduct issues:

  • Meet with the employee. If an employee isn't meeting performance or conduct expectations or is violating company policies, address the situation promptly. Don't wait until their annual performance review. Meet with the employee, express your appreciation for their contributions and be straightforward. Let them know you've noticed issues with their performance and/or attitude and give examples. Explain that you are trying to help the employee improve and give them an opportunity to respond.

    During the meeting, the employee may reveal information that can trigger certain obligations. For example:
    • If the employee discloses that the reason for their change in behavior or performance is because they're a victim of sexual harassment, launch a prompt investigation into the allegations.
    • If the employee reveals they have a disability, you may be required to engage in an interactive process with the employee and provide reasonable accommodation to the employee.
    • If they reveal symptoms of burn out, offer company resources that may help, such as an Employee Assistance Program, and help them develop a plan for improving.
    • And, if they are having difficulty working with another employee, guide them through resolving workplace disagreements.

At the close of the meeting, confirm that the employee has fully understood the expectations for improvement and have them acknowledge the discussion in writing.

  • Document the discussion. Document the meeting, including the date and substance of the conversation, and retain a record of it in the employee's personnel file.
  • Follow up. Follow up with the employee to see how they're doing. If their performance/behavior hasn't improved, further intervention may be necessary.

Q: An employee’s performance has improved after we intervened. How can we keep them on track?

A: Employees want to be recognized and appreciated for their efforts at work. As a result, many employers have established recognition programs through which supervisors and co-workers can share positive feedback for a job well done. When you do share positive feedback, be specific about why the employee is being recognized. For instance, instead of just saying "good job on that project," be specific about what you appreciated about their effort. For example, "You took ownership of the project from the beginning and corrected a problem that saved the company time and money. Thank you for your dedication."

Q: When drafting a disciplinary policy and enforcing it, what else should I keep in mind?

A: Disciplinary action provisions should give the company flexibility to act based on the facts and circumstances of each case.

If drafted incorrectly, discipline policies may lock you into taking one course of action, such as policies that indicate a verbal warning will be given for all first offenses, a written warning for all second offenses, and so on (commonly known as progressive discipline).

Instead, state that violations may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination, and that the company reserves the right to decide what disciplinary action to take in any given situation. However, remember that treating employees fairly is key, and similar situations and past practices should also guide and impact the disciplinary action you take.

If you determine a workplace violation has occurred, take immediate and appropriate corrective action. The corrective action should reflect the severity of the offense and the employee's history of misconduct.


When an employee's conduct, attitude or performance isn't meeting expectations, address the issue promptly to help get the employee back on track.


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