A disciplinary action guide for underperformers

No doubt, we all cringe when we need to deal with an underperformer in the workplace. However, it’s important to note that managing an underperformer is common practice which most, if not all employers have to deal with at some stage. If not handled properly, it can lead to a disaster which can tarnish the reputation, viability and profitability of the employer’s business. Therefore, it is critical for employers to have proper disciplinary action policies/procedures in place to avoid any mishandling of underperformance.  

Underperformance is when a worker is failing to perform the duties of their position and not meeting the minimum standards required. Unfortunately, with underperformance, productivity and staff morale drops. Even those workers who perform well can lose motivation as they are usually the ones who need to carry the burden of low performers. This puts the employer in a difficult position, as they need to keep the productivity level and staff morale high, whilst knowing that they can’t just remove a low performer from the business without following their disciplinary action process. 

If a worker is underperforming, firstly it is important for the employer to investigate and gather objective evidence of the workers underperformance. Once the employer has enough evidence on hand, they will need to organise a meeting with the underperformer to discuss their performance. It is important for the employer to provide the worker with enough time to prepare for the meeting. In addition to that, an employer cannot unreasonably refuse for a worker to bring a support person. During the meeting, the employer should outline their concerns including the supporting evidence they have gathered. The employer should then allow the worker a chance to respond and present their side of the story. It is important for the employer to document the workers response and genuinely consider before deciding on a course of action. Depending on the workers reasons for the underperformance, an action plan may need to be developed so that the worker is given every opportunity to work on areas of concerns. This might include the employer putting the worker on performance improvement plan (PIP) to provide additional training/development to assist the worker in their role. It is also important to set a review date to see how the worker is travelling. If the worker seems to be back on track during these review meetings, they should be praised on their achievements and the employer continue monitoring their performance. If the worker has not shown any improvement, then it is important to continue with the process and keep documenting.

A disciplinary action process should commence with a counselling session or a verbal warning and move onto written warnings as part of an employer’s disciplinary action procedure. Written warnings are common form of discipline in today’s workplaces as it allows the employer to alert the worker to certain actions which have been inconsistent with their duties. When issuing written warnings, the worker should be advised that if there is no improvement in their performance over a period of agreed time, their employment could be terminated. Failure to warn workers in such manner is usually considered a major employer omission by industrial tribunals.

If an employer has repeated the above process on a few occasions and feel that the worker is not where they need to be, the employer will then need to decide whether it’s time to part ways with the worker. There is no golden rule regarding the number of warnings a worker needs to receive before going down the path of dismissal, however for an underperformance related matter, it is recommended at least three warnings (with the third review date being the actual termination meeting). There should be a minimum of 4-6 weeks in between each meeting, however that will depend on what is required of the worker and reasonable timeframe that the worker will need to achieve the expectation.

It is very important for the worker to be granted with procedural fairness throughout the above process. If there has been no improvement or not at the expected satisfactory level, this should be explained to the worker and once again allow the worker a chance to respond. The employer should consider the worker’s response before deciding whether the termination of their employment should go ahead or not. It is advisable for the meeting to be adjourned so that the workers’ response be considered in good faith. If the decision is made to terminate the workers’ employment, it is important to advise the worker of the actual reason for their termination. In most instances, the worker will not be required to work out their notice period and will be paid in lieu (unless its summary dismissal). A letter confirming the reason for the termination, the details of the notice and end date should be given to the worker either by hand or emailed across on the same day.


This article is prepared to only provide general information about the topic. It is not intended to be used as advice in any way.

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